Grace Hopper: Inspiring the World of Computers

Topics: ComputerNavy

In 1970, my dad had a job doing data entry on punch cards on a computer that filled a room. This computer only understood data entered in ones and zeroes. Fourteen years later, he had a desktop computer, and on this computer, he entered data using a standard keyboard and could write custom programs using English words. The groundwork for this capability was laid in the 1950s by Grace Hopper. For her innovation, tenacity, and willingness to do things that others deemed impossible, she earned the nickname “Amazing Grace.

” A pioneer in the Navy and in computer programming, her legacy continues to inspire women and computer scientists of all generations. Grace Hopper was inspired to join the Navy by her great-grandfather, Admiral Russell, who fought in the Civil War, and in World War II when the Navy established the WAVES, she thought she had her chance.

However, the Navy said she was too old to enlist, she was too low weight, and as a mathematician she was more useful in a university than in the Navy.

She was nothing if not persistent, though, and after a year, she got her waivers. She went to Officer Candidate School, graduated at the top of her class of 800, and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project. There, she programmed the Mark I computer to calculate trajectories for Naval guns and rockets, and later the trajectory for the plutonium bomb used at Nagasaki. After World War II, when the WAVES were released from active service, Hopper remained in the Naval Reserves until her first retirement in 1966.

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Throughout that time, she often worked as a Navy contractor and helped the Navy adopt computers and automation. A few months after she retired, the Navy recalled her to active duty for a “six-month assignment” as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy for Automatic Data Processing. She was extended on active duty again and again until 1986, at which time she was the special advisor to the Commander of the Naval Data Automation Command.

When she retired for the final time, she had attained the rank of Rear Admiral and had served for 43 years; only four Naval officers served longer. Admiral Hopper believed in teamwork and encouraged her team to share bits of code, reducing errors and duplication of effort. As word of this code library spread, other programmers contributed from all over the US. She also believed that computers should be made easy to program. She thought this would make computers more accessible and thereby get more people interested in programming, but most programmers thought it was ridiculous to think computers could be made to understand anything other than ones and zeros. Undeterred, she wrote the A-0, a precursor to the compiler which called sets of code from her library by ID number. Later, she wrote the B-0, a.k.a. FLOW-MATIC, a true compiler which used English words like INPUT, OUTPUT, IF, and CLOSE-OUT.

However, the FLOW-MATIC could only run on one set of computers, the UNIVAC I and II (Yale University, n.d.). To make programming truly accessible, she needed a compiler that would run on any computer. When a team formed to create COBOL, a universal compiler, Admiral Hopper served as one of two technical advisors, and her FLOW-MATIC compiler served as the basis for COBOL. When COBOL was released, she campaigned heavily to get it adopted across commercial systems and convinced the Navy to use it as well. Throughout her life, Admiral Hopper was a public speaker, an educator, a writer, and an advocate for technology and education.

In addition to her PhD in Mathematics from Yale, she earned more than 40 honorary degrees for her work in computer science. She was the first woman to receive the National Medal of Technology and the first woman to become a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. It’s no wonder that so many academic sites, training, and scholarship programs have been named for her. The Naval Academy named its cyber studies building for her, and Yale named a college for her. The Grace Hopper Program is a women-only immersive training program for computer coding in New York City. The Grace Hopper Celebration is an annual convention for networking and education for women in technology in Orlando, Florida, and Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Goldman Sachs all offer associated scholarships.

Numerous local one-off scholarships have also been based on Grace Hopper’s legacy. “Amazing Grace” Hopper wanted to make using technology easy, both by teaching people about technology and by making technology easier to use. When asked about being the first to come up with a plain-language program, she said, ‘No-one thought of that earlier, because they weren’t as lazy as I was’. In truth, she would rather spend her energy making a better way to do something than doing thing the same old way simply because it was the way it was always done. Her insistence on always seeking a better way is truly a model to emulate.

References

  1. Akujobi, N. (2019, October 16). Grace Hopper scholarships 2020: Facebook, Microsoft, Google. World Scholarship Forum. https://worldscholarshipforum.com/grace-hopper-scholarships/
  2. Fuchs, H. & Hamid, Z. (2017, September 1). Hopper students forge new identity. Yale Daily News. https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2017/09/01/hopper-students-forge-new-identity/
  3. Fullstack Academy. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions. The Grace Hopper Program. https://www.gracehopper.com/faq
  4. Harford, T. (2017, February 20). Grace Hopper’s compiler: Computing’s hidden hero. BBC World Service, 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-38677721
  5. Naval History and Heritage Command. (2014, December 9). Grace Hopper: Navy to the core, a pirate at heart. https://usnhistory.navylive.dodlive.mil/2014/12/09/grace-hopper-navy-to-the-core-a-pirate-at-heart/
  6. Orlando, M. (2002, July). Amazing grace. Poptronics, 3(7), 26-28.
  7. Witte, B. (2016, September 8). Naval academy to honor computer scientist Grace Hopper. https://www.navytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/2016/09/08/naval-academy-to-honor-computer-scientist-grace-hopper/
  8. Yale University, Computer Science Department. (n.d.). Grace Murray Hopper. http://www.cs.yale.edu/homes/tap/Files/hopper-story.html

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Grace Hopper: Inspiring the World of Computers. (2022, Mar 01). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/grace-hopper-inspiring-the-world-of-computers/

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