Pioneers in Tech: Grace Hopper

“Amazing Grace” (1906-1992)

Grace Hopper sitting in front of an American flag
Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USNR Official portrait photograph

Early Life

Ph.D. graduate, computer engineer, software developer, and navy admiral Grace Hopper played an integral role in the advancement and distribution of modern technology.

At the age of 37, Hopper left her job teaching mathematics at Vassar College to aid in the U.S.’s World War II efforts. Though initially rejected, Hopper joined the U.S. Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve) in 1943 and was a part of the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. There, she worked under Howard Aiken, inventor of the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, the world’s first large-scale, automatic electromechanical computer. 

Hopper was one of three programmers working on the computer, called the Mark I. Her programming allowed the machine to easily switch tasks by getting new instructions from punched paper tape, rather than by rewiring cables or configuring hardware. Unlike previous models, this computer was built to solve a number of unique problems instead of one.

On top of programming, Hopper wrote the roughly 500-page user manual for the Mark I. It explained both the machine’s history and how to program it. At Harvard, Hopper also perfected the subroutine: chunks of code that acted as one task and could be stored in the computer’s memory and called upon later. 

After the War

Hopper went into inactive duty after the war. She joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (later bought by Remington Rand and then merged with the Sperry Corporation). As a Senior Mathematician. Her goal was to create a programming language that operators who did not have a background in mathematics and technology could understand.

Hopper realized the importance of communication in her work. In her teaching roles at Vassar, she made her math students write essays on the material they were learning. When faced with backlash, she said, “I would explain, it was no use trying to learn math unless they could communicate it with other people.”

This philosophy led Hopper to the idea of a compiler, a program that could use simpler language to represent binary code. In 1949, she and her team unveiled A-O, a compiler that used symbolic mathematical code to represent binary code combinations. Following this project was the B-O, or “Flow-Matic,” the first compiler to use plain English as keywords. Flow-Matic could perform business tasks like automatic billing and payroll calculation. It would later be used to program UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) machines—some of the first commercially available computers in the U.S. 

Flow-Matic served as a stepping-stone to COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language). COBOL is a programming language that can be used on machines manufactured by different companies. Hopper served as one of two technical advisors to the CODASYL Executive Committee, the team developing the language. She played a key role in the promotion and adoption of COBOL by government and businesses, many of which still rely on the program today.

Recognition 

Hopper’s contributions are recognized through her honors and awards. Notably, she was the first recipient of the Computer Science Man of the Year Award by the Data Processing Management Association and the first American and first woman to become a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. In 1991, Hopper won the National Medal of Technology “for her pioneering accomplishments in the development of computer programming languages that simplified computer technology and opened the door to a significantly larger universe of users.” In 2016, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, further solidifying her influence and legacy in technology and the United States military. 

Legacy

More than anything, Grace Hopper’s idealogy and personality led her to success. She once said, “The most damaging phrase in the language is: ‘It’s always been done that way.'” Instead of listening to all of the voices who told her what she wanted was too complicated or unrealistic, she went out of her way to make those visions into reality. She will forever be remembered for her tenacious spirit.

To see Grace Hopper’s wit in action, check out her interview on The Late Show with David Letterman here

Read about other influential women who’ve shaped technology on the Leahy Center’s blog page.

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Written by Tanner Rubino ‘22 // Professional Writing

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