by Meghna Badami
Grace Murray Hopper was more than just a pioneer mathematician and computer programmer. She was a social scientist, marketing whiz, and nothing less than a visionary. A woman with many firsts, it would be incomplete to go through Women’s History Month without honouring her memory.
Hopper was born on December 9th, 1906 in New York City, USA. She earned her Bachelor's degree in physics and mathematics from Vassar College and went on to attain her Masters and PhD in mathematics from Yale University, , becoming the first woman to earn such a degree from that college.
After graduating, Hopper worked as an Associate Professor in mathematics at Vassar. During World War II, she applied to the US Navy Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) in 1943. This came as no surprise, since her family had a long tradition of serving in the military. However, she was rejected because she was too old to serve and hence joined the Navy Reserves instead. Given her mathematical background, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation project at Harvard University where she worked on the Mark I under Howard H. Aitken. The IBM Sequence Controlled Calculator, called Mark 1 by Harvard Staff was an electromechanical computer that was used for World War II. Hopper was one of the first programmers of this revolutionary machine.
With the end of WWII in 1945, Hopper was working on the Mark II (Mark II, unlike Mark I used electromagnetic relays that made it much faster). During this time, her team popularized the word ‘debugging’ in computer science, referring to a moth that was stuck in the machine. She was appointed to the Harvard faculty as a research fellow, and in 1949 she joined the newly formed Eckert-Mauchly Corporation, founded by the builders of ENIAC, one of the first electronic digital computers. Here, she worked as a part of the team that developed the UNIVAC 1 (Universal Automated Computer 1), which was the first general purpose electronic computer.
While working at Eckert-Mauchly, she began developing a compiler (or linker) which converted English into the language that the computer was programmed in. Hopper claimed that she did this because she was ‘lazy’ and hoped that “the programmer may return to being a mathematician.” The compiler was developed for the A-0 system. This was a revolutionary step since it meant that instruction could be fed to the computer with English and could automatically be converted into machine code. Her idea was turned down for over three years because people believed that “computers couldn’t understand English!”. With Hopper’s compiler, one could just type in commands like “subtract” instead of the code or symbol for the same. This also formed the basis for COBOL, a computer language for data processing still used today!
In 1954, she was named the company’s first Director of Automatic programming and her team developed some of the first compiler based programming languages like FLOW-MATIC and MATH-MATIC.
From 1967 to 1977, Hopper served as the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group in the Navy's Office of Information Systems Planning and was promoted to the rank of captain in 1973. She developed validation software for COBOL and its compiler as part of a COBOL standardization program for the entire Navy.
Eventually, she was promoted to rear admiral and became one of the country’s few female admirals. Hopper retired from the US Navy in 1986, and at the age of 79, she was the oldest active duty commissioned officer.
After her retirement, she worked as a consultant for Digital Equipment Corporation. She spent her last few years giving speeches in a wide variety of computer science events. She was a jovial speaker and loved talking about war times and hence earned the nickname “Grandma COBOL”.
“Amazing Grace,” as she was often known as, passed away on New Year’s Day, 1992 in Virginia at 85. She was interred with full military honours. On November 22, 2016 she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She once said, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We've always done it this way.’” And it was no doubt that it was this visionary, brave approach to life that makes her one of the most inspiring female scientists of all time!