Grace Hopper: Computer Pioneer and Naval Officer

Grace Hopper: Computer Pioneer and Naval Officer

The daughter of Walter Fletcher Murray and Mary Campbell Van Horne, Grace Brewster Murray was born on December 9, 1906 in New York City.  At a very young age she showed an interest in engineering, often taking apart household goods and putting them back together.

She attended high school during the Roaring Twenties, when people owned automobiles, and were more likely to light their houses with electricity than gas. They could buy radios, wash clothes using electric washing machines and utilize innovations such as the television.

She’d been inspired by the writing of Betty Holbertson, a coder who worked on the Electronic Numerical Integrator (ENIAC), the first electronic computer. Hopper realized that a computer could be made to do anything she could completely define, using code that was not part of its original programming. Grace wanted to write computer programs that would allow factory workers, business people, and sales people to use computers. Her persistence did not pay off right away.

In 1923, she took the entrance exams for Vassar College, wanting to major in math, but failed the Latin section of the test. She retook the test, passed and enrolled September 1924.

Grace started to work her way up through the Vassar teaching hierarchy in 1931; first as an instructor, then as an assistant professor and finally as an associate professor.

She joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in December 1943 and was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. There she worked for Howard Aiken, who had developed the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, better known as the Mark I, on one of the earliest electromechanical computers.

Measuring 50 feet long by 8 feet high, weighing nearly 5 tons, Mark I was an interconnection of wheels, shafts, gears and switches containing 530 miles of wire, 3,500 electromechanical relays and 2,300 storage counters all orchestrated by a 3 inch wide punch tape.

By the summer of 1945, she was working on the construction of a new computer-the Mark II, which was five times faster than the Mark I. She worked with Mark II until she moved on to Mark III, a computer which performed 50 times faster than Mark II.

In 1949, Grace Hopper went to work at Eckert-Mauchley Computer Corporation. They planned to build the Universal Automatic Computer, UNIVAC I. It would be the smallest computer ever built at fourteen feet long and eight feet high, using vacuum tubes instead of electromechanical relay switches, and expected to be 20 times faster than Mark III. Another advancement is that the UNIVAC I would have internal memory.

The first task in building the UNIVAC I was to hire new workers. To identify suitable candidates, she made up a set of interview questions. One was "Do you like to do crossword puzzles?" Another was "Do you like to do figure out mysteries when you go to a movie or read a book?" If applicants answered yes, there was a good chance she would hire them. She believed that smart, curious people would enjoy computer programming. By 1951, UNIVAC I was working.

In 1953 Grace Hopper invented the first English-like data processing language, "Flow-Matic", originally known as B-0 (Business Language version 0). The program translated written instructions into codes that computers read directly. This work led her to co-develop COBOL, one of the earliest standardized computer languages. COBOL, Common Business Oriented Language, enabled computers to respond to words in addition to numbers.

In 1973, Grace Hopper was named a distinguished fellow of the British Computer Society, then the first person from the U.S. and first woman from any country to hold the title.

In 1984, she was inducted into the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame, and in 1991 received the National Medal of Technology.

She died at the age of 85 on January 1, 1992 and laid to rest in the Arlington National Cemetery, the second female rear admiral in history.

She popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first modern programming languages.

It is easier to get forgiveness than permission.

Like this post? Stop by and read Lise Meitner: Co-Discoverer of Nuclear Fission." Lise Meitner (n. Elise Meitner) achieved two major results in nuclear physics, the discovery of the element protactinium and nuclear fission. In 1966, she, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman were awarded the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s Enrico Fermi Prize for their contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission.

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