From her efforts to develop the first standardized computer programming “language” to her efforts to encourage thousands of young women to consider science careers, Admiral Grace Murray Hopper made her mark on the U.S Navy and the computing world. Her best-known quote – “It’s easier to apologize than to get permission” – became the watchword for generations, not only in the military but in business as well.
Grace Brewster Murray was born in 1906 in New York City, and graduated from Vassar College in 1928 with degrees in mathematics and physics. She taught at Vassar while working on advanced degrees in math at Yale, earning her Ph.D. there in 1934. In 1930, she married Vincent Foster Hopper, a professor of Renaissance literature at Yale, later at New York University. The Hoppers divorced in 1945; Vincent Foster Hopper died in 1976.
Grace Hopper remained at Vassar until 1943, when she joined the U.S. Naval Reserve, assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard, where she worked on the Mark series of computers.
At Harvard, Hopper joined with Professor Howard Aiken to design the Mark I, a five-ton computer used for gunnery and ballistic calculations. The computer, controlled by pre-punched paper tape, could carry out addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and reference to previous results. Data were stored and counted mechanically, using 3000 decimal storage wheels, 1400 rotary dial switches, and 500 miles of wire.
Hopper developed programming for the Mark I computer, and won the Naval Ordnance Development Award for her pioneering applications programming success. During this time, she began to think about ways that a wider audience could use computers, if there were tools that were both programming-friendly and application-friendly. Moving to Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, she began work with UNIVAC I, the first large-scale digital computer, encouraging programmers to collect and share common portions of programs. Despite the fact that these early code libraries were copied by hand, they reduced errors and also duplication of effort, opening the path to wider use of shared codes.
Her first complier, the A-O series, translated symbolic mathematical code into machine code, and allowed the specification of call numbers assigned to the collected programming routines stored on magnetic tape. In this way, programmers could specify the call numbers of the desired routines, and the computer would find them on the tape and do the appropriate calculations.
Hopper continued work on developing a workable computer language, developing the B-O compiler, later known as FLOW-MATIC. This was developed to translate a computer language that could be used for traditional business activities, such as automatic billing and payroll calculation. Hopper and her colleagues used FLOW-MATIC to help UNIVAC I understand twenty sentences in English. Despite this, Hopper was told by computer experts that an English programming language would never work.
This led Hopper to develop COBOL, with the help of staff of CODASYL (Conference on Data Systems Languages), a consortium formed in 1959 to guide the development of a standard programming language that could be used on many computers. CODASYL’s members were individuals from industry and government involved in data processing activity. Its larger goal was to promote more effective data systems analysis, design, and implementation. The organization published specifications for various languages over the years, handing these over to official standards bodies (ISO, ANSI, or their predecessors) for formal standardization.
Hopper returned to active duty in the Navy in 1967, as a leader in the Naval Data Automation Command, continuing to push for 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, eventually leading to national and international standards for most programming languages.
In her later years, both before and after she retired from the Navy in 1986 with the rank of Rear Admiral, Hopper was a sought-after public speaker. In her speeches, Hopper was plain-spoken, often using analogies and examples to help non-technical audiences with technical details. For example, she carried handfuls of thin wire about a foot (11.8 inches) long, giving the wires to audience members and explaining that the wire represented a nanosecond, since it was the distance light could travel in a nanosecond. She was careful to tell her audience that the length of the nanoseconds was actually the maximum speed light the signals would travel in a vacuum, and that the signals would travel more slowly through the wire. She then would show the audience a coil of wire nearly a thousand feet long, representing the distance light would travel in a microsecond. She couldn’t bring in a wire to show the audience a second, she said, because she didn’t have a truck. Later, after computer speeds increased, she also passed out packets of pepper that she called picoseconds.
She was also a consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation after her retirement from the Navy, remaining at DEC until her death in 1992.
Awards and honors for Admiral Hopper are many and varied. Here are a few of them:
• In 1969, Hopper was awarded the inaugural “computer sciences man of the year” award from the Data Processing Management Association.
• The annual Grace Murray Hopper Award for Outstanding Young Computer Professionals was established in 1971 by the Association for Computing Machinery.
• 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.
Upon her retirement in 1986, she received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.
• In 1991, she received the National Medal of Technology.
• In 1996, the USS Hopper (DDG-70) was launched. Nicknamed Amazing Grace, it is on a very short list of U.S. military vessels named after women.
• The Gracies, the Government Technology Leadership Awards, were named in her honor in 2001.