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Women in tech history: Grace Hopper — Admiral, programmer, and rebel

Jennifer Harrison
Jennifer Harrison
5 min read
Women in tech history: Grace Hopper — Admiral, programmer, and rebel

The people who change the world are often the rebels; the ones who see the world differently and try to push against the status quo. Grace Hopper was one of those people and she most definitely left her mark on the world. Her life is a story of firsts and she was a pioneer in computer programming from the 1930s right through to the 1980s. She was the Admiral, the pirate, the trouble-maker and she was “Amazing Grace”.

Tinkering toddler

Grace Hopper was born in 1906 in New York to parents of Scottish and Dutch heritage. Her father was a successful businessman and her mother was a housewife with a keen interest in maths. Grace was an exceptionally inquisitive child and played with anything that allowed her to build and disassemble, including construction kits meant for children much older than her. At the age of 7, she wanted to know how alarm clocks worked so she took apart 7 clocks before her mother realised what was going on. Her parents encouraged her natural curiosity and it was no surprise when she went on to study maths at university.

Grace obtained a bachelor’s degree in maths and physics at Vassar College before graduating with a master’s in maths from Yale in 1930. By 1934 she was the first woman to ever complete a maths PhD at Yale. Being first is a recurring theme in her life. Throughout the 1930s she taught maths and was an associate professor in 1941. At this time, the US was in the grip of World War II. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a turning point for Grace. She could have become a full professor at Vassar but she had somewhere else to be. In 1943 she chose to serve her country by volunteering for the Navy.

Bugs at Harvard

Grace volunteered for the women’s reserve in the Navy but almost didn’t get accepted as she was tiny, weighing 15 pounds less than the minimum weight. Fortunately she was exempted and graduated first from her training class, proving that they had made the right decision. She was made lieutenant and joined the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University, where she quickly made her mark as a programmer on the Harvard Mark I computer. You’ve probably heard the story about a bug being found in an early computer; literally a moth. That was the Harvard Mark II and Grace popularised the terms “bug” and “debugging” as they’re used in computing.

“From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it.”
Grace Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard in the 1960s. | Unknown (Smithsonian Institute)

At Harvard she created one of her first important inventions: the subroutine, a single unit of program tasks that can be called upon and used repeatedly. Continuing to work on Navy projects, Grace joined the Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation in 1949 to work on the UNIVAC I computer. It was at this time that she made one of her greatest contributions to computing by inventing the compiler, a program that takes instructions written in a programming language and translates them into another language or the machine code that a processor can understand.

Compilers are a fundamental aspect of modern programming so it can’t be overstated how important this contribution is. At the time nobody could believe it had been done. It was considered a fruitless effort and that her time would be better spent working on other problems. That’s exactly the kind of response that would inspire Grace to press on anyway.

“Nobody believed it. I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. They carefully told me, computers only do arithmetic; they could not do programs.”

Programming in English

The development of the compiler led Grace down a road that changed programming languages as we know them. She had a strong belief that programming didn’t have to be done in machine code and that more programming languages using plain English could make the field more accessible for everyone. She had created a programming language for the UNIVAC computers called FLOW-MATIC that used plain English and relied on her compiler to translate the language into something the computers could understand.

Grace Hopper | Vassar Archives and Special Collections

In 1959, she led a team of experts who modified her FLOW-MATIC language to create COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language). It became the most common programming language for businesses and the US military due to its use of plain English and despite being 57 years old it’s still found in many business systems today. Modern languages are better, of course, so most of the current users are simply keeping older systems up and running. But it’s a testament to the the quality and vision of the project that it had such a lasting effect.

The Admiral

The Navy meant as much to Grace as programming and mathematics did. In 1966 she held the title of Commander but was forced to retire because she had reached the age of 60, which was standard practice. A year later they asked her back to work for just 6 months. Instead, she continued to serve for another 4 years before retiring again. History repeated itself and a year later she was asked back.

Commodore Grace M. Hopper in 1984 | James S. Davis

When she finally retired from the Navy for good, she was almost 80 years old, the oldest person actively serving, and the first woman to reach the rank of Admiral. Her retirement was celebrated on the USS Constitution and she received the highest decoration the Department of Defense can award for a non-combat role: the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. She worked as a consultant for another 5 years until her death.

Grace had a rebellious nature; this wasn’t because she enjoyed getting into trouble but because she wanted to change things when people told her it couldn’t be done. Biographer Jay Elliot wrote that she appeared all Navy, but inside there was “a pirate dying to be released.” Her rebellious nature is what helped her get things done. She wasn’t one to hide this aspect of her personality:

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”

It’s obvious how respected she is in computing and in the Navy. She has a supercomputer and even an aircraft carrier named after her. Every year there’s a conference in her name for celebrating women in computing. She received over 40 honorary degrees from universities. Obviously her story is an inspiration to many. Not every programmer wants to work in the Navy; not everyone wants to write their own programming language; but she was an inspiration, not just for her achievements, but also her attitude:

“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ’em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ’em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.”

Try it. Take chances. When others do, back ’em up.

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