A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Grace Murray Hopper
1906 - 1992

Grace Murray Hopper may have been ahead of her time. She certainly did things that were a little unusual for women of her day. She graduated from Vassar College in 1928 with a degree in math. She went on to get a masters and doctorate in math, too, from Yale. This wasn't just rare for a woman: statistics show only 1,279 math PhDs were awarded between 1862 and 1934, the year Hopper received hers.

She joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, a part of the U.S. Naval Reserve) in 1943 and a year later was Lieutenant Hopper. She was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation team at Harvard, designing a machine to make fast, difficult calculations for tasks such as laying mine fields. Howard Aiken directed the work, which boiled down to creating the first programmable digital computer -- the Mark I. For Hopper, a mathematician with no background in computing, it was a crash course in the complexities and frustrations of programming, and the beginning of her life's work. The war ended but Hopper wanted to stay in the navy. Her age (40) prevented her transfer from the WAVES to the regular navy, so she remained in the reserves. She also remained at Harvard, working on newer models in the Mark computer series.

One day a computer failure had Hopper and her team baffled. Finally they opened the machine -- a moth had gotten inside! Hopper taped the offending creature into her log book and noted beside it, "first actual bug found." She is credited with the terms "bug" and "debug" for computer errors and how to fix them.

In 1949, Hopper joined a start-up launched by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, who had developed ENIAC, one of the earliest computers. Their new product was Univac, a computer that recorded information on high-speed magnetic tape, an innovation over the standard punch-cards of the day. The project's success spurred Sperry Corporation to buy the company. Hopper stayed on at Sperry, becoming systems engineer and director of automatic programming from 1952 to 1964. She made important advances in reducing errors by creating a program to translate programmer's code to machine language. She and her staff developed Flow-matic, the first programming language to use English words. This was later incorporated into COBOL, the business programming language that brought computer use and data processing into the world of commerce. Computing had formerly been seen as a tool of scientists. Before COBOL was designed, the leading computer companies were competing to be first to come up with such a business language. Hopper hated the idea of the waste involved in this. She was an early backer of standardization and compatibility between computer systems, but these big companies could not join forces to create a common language without violating antitrust laws. So Hopper and other academics -- and the Defense Department -- formed a committee to devise the language.

In 1966, Hopper approached retirement age and reluctantly retired from the navy. But not for long; she returned to active duty the following year and was exempted from the mandatory retirement age of 62. In 1969 she was voted "Man of the Year" by the Data Processing Management Association. Over the next 20 years she actively lectured, wrote, and consulted. The navy promoted her to rear admiral, and she was still serving as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation when she died at age 85 in 1992.

"It is easier to get forgiveness than permission."

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