The new discipline of computing and the sciences that depend upon it have led the way in making space for women’s participation on an equal basis. That was in some ways true for Grace Murray Hopper, and it is all the more true for women today because of Hopper’s work. Grace Brewster Murray graduated from Vassar with a B. A. in mathematics in 1928 and worked under algebraist Oystein Ore at Yale for her M. A. (1930) and Ph. D. (1934). She married Vincent Foster Hopper, an educator, in 1930 and began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931.
She had achieved the rank of associate professor in 1941 when she won a faculty fellowship for study at New York University’s Courant Institute for Mathematics. Hopper had come from a family with military traditions, thus it was not surprising to anyone when she resigned her Vassar post to join the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) in December 1943. She was commissioned a lieutenant in July 1944 and reported to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, where she was the third person to join the research team of professor (and Naval Reserve lieutenant) Howard H. Aiken.
She recalled that he greeted her with the words, “Where the hell have you been? ” and pointed to his electromechanical Mark I computing machine, saying “Here, compute the coefficients of the arc tangent series by next Thursday. ” Hopper plunged in and learned to program the machine, putting together a 500-page Manual of Operations for the Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator in which she outlined the fundamental operating principles of computing machines. By the end of World War II in 1945, Hopper was working on the Mark II version of the machine.
Although her marriage was dissolved at this point, and though she had no children, she did not resume her maiden name. Hopper was appointed to the Harvard faculty as a research fellow, and in 1949 she joined the newly formed Eckert-Mauchly Corporation. Hopper never again held only one job at a time. She remained associated with Eckert-Mauchly and its successors (Remington-Rand, Sperry-Rand, and Univac) until her official “retirement” in 1971. Her work took her back and forth among institutions in the military, private industry, business, and academe.
In December 1983 she was promoted to commodore in a ceremony at the White House. When the post of commodore was merged with that of rear admiral, two years later, she became Admiral Hopper. She was one of the first software engineers and, indeed, one of the most incisive strategic “futurists” in the world of computing. Perhaps her best-known contribution to computing was the invention of the compiler, the intermediate program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer.
She did this, she said, because she was lazy and hoped that “the programmer may return to being a mathematician. ” Her work embodied or foreshadowed enormous numbers of developments that are now the bones of digital computing: subroutines, formula translation, relative addressing, the linking loader, code optimization, and even symbolic manipulation of the kind embodied in Mathematica and Maple. Throughout her life, it was her service to her country of which she was most proud. Appropriately, Admiral Hopper was buried with full Naval honors at Arlington National Cemetery on January 7, 1992.
Pursuing her belief that computer programs could be written in English, Admiral hopper moved forward with the development for Univac of the B-O compiler, later known as FLOW-MATIC. It was designed to translate a language that could be used for typical business tasks like automatic billing and payroll calculation. Using FLOW-MATIC, Admiral Hopper and her staff were able to make the UNIVAC I and II “understand” twenty statements in English. When she recommended that an entire programming language be developed using English words, however, she “was told very quickly that she couldn’t do this because computers didn’t understand English.
It was three years before her idea was finally accepted; she published her first compiler paper in 1952. Admiral Hopper actively participated in the first meetings to formulate specifications for a common business language. She was one of the two technical advisers to the resulting CODASYL Executive Committee, and several of her staff was members of the CODASYL Short Range Committee to define the basic COBOL language design. The design was greatly influenced by FLOW-MATIC. As one member of the Short Range Committee stated, “[FLOW-MATIC] was the only business-oriented programming language in use at the time COBOL development started…
Without FLOW-MATIC we probably never would have had a COBOL. ” The first COBOL specifications appeared in 1959. Admiral Hopper devoted much time to convincing business managers that English language compilers such as FLOW-MATIC and COBOL were feasible. She participated in a public demonstration by Sperry Corporation and RCA of COBOL compilers and the machine independence they provided. After her brief retirement from the Navy, Admiral Hopper led an effort to standardize COBOL and to persuade the entire Navy to use this high-level computer language. With her technical skills, she led her team to develop useful COBOL manuals and tools.
With her speaking skills, she convinced managers that they should learn to use them. Another major effort in Admiral Hopper’s life was the standardization of compilers. Under her direction, the Navy developed a set of programs and procedures for validating COBOL compilers. This concept of validation has had widespread impact on other programming languages and organizations; it eventually led to national and international standards and validation facilities for most programming languages. Admiral Grace Murray Hopper received many awards and commendations for her accomplishments.
In 1969, she was awarded the first ever Computer Science Man-of-the-Year Award from the Data Processing Management Association. In 1971, the Sperry Corporation initiated an annual award in her name to honor young computer professionals for their significant contributions to computer science. In 1973, she became the first person from the United States and the first woman of any nationality to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. After four decades of pioneering work, Admiral Hopper felt her greatest contribution had been “all the young people I’ve trained. She was an inspirational professor and a much sought-after speaker, in some years she addressed more than 200 audiences.
In her speeches Admiral Hopper often used analogies and examples that have become legendary. Once she presented a piece of wire about a foot long, and explained that it represented a nanosecond, since it was the maximum distance electricity could travel in wire in one-billionth of a second. She often contrasted this nanosecond with a microsecond – a coil of wire nearly a thousand feet long – as she encouraged programmers not to waste even a microsecond.
When Admiral Grace Murray Hopper died, the world lost an inspiration to women and scientists everywhere. Her outstanding contributions to computer science benefited academia, industry, and the military. Her work spanned programming languages, software development concepts, compiler verification, and data processing. Her early recognition of the potential for commercial applications of computers, and her leadership and perseverance in making this vision a reality, paved the way for modern data processing.