“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, “We’ve always done it this way.” I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”
Born: 9th December 1906
Died: 1st January 1992
Occupation: Computer Scientist
Known for: Inventing the first compiler
Childhood and Education
Grace Hopper was born in New York City as Grace Murray. From an early age, she displayed curiosity and analytical skills. A story has it that at the age of seven she took apart all alarm clocks in the house since she wanted to figure out how one works. Her parents encouraged her curiosity and made sure she had the same opportunities of education as her brother, which was unusual for that time. In fact, her mother had been interested in mathematics as a child but unable to study as it was not considered to be a proper education for a lady. This may be the reason she was intent on ensuring Grace’s interests and their development was not limited by her gender. In 1924 she entered Vassar College, where she studied maths and physics. At that time she considered a teaching career. After she graduated from Vassar, she went on to study for her postgraduate degree at Yale University. She obtained first a master degree and then a PhD in mathematics. Apart from her formal education, Grace Hopper was also a self learner. She knew several languages and had a wide inter-disciplinary knowledge in fields like biology, astronomy, economics and philosophy, to name a few.
After completing her masters degree, Grace Hopper started to work at Vassar College teaching mathematics. Her classes were popular among the students thanks to her impressive knowledge and pleasant personality. However, the outbreak of World War 2 caused her to change her career. She tried to join the Navy Reserve in 1942 and was rejected, but then reapplied and was finally admitted in 1943. She finished her training in 1944 and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project at Harvard University where she worked on Harvard Mark 1 computer. She learned computer programming and became so fascinated by it that she did not return to her teaching career after the war, instead deciding to remain at Harvard to work on Mark 2 and Mark 3 computer. She also worked for the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation where she helped design UNIVAC 1 (first commercial computer produced by the US). During that time she also came up with the idea of developing a programming language using English words. Her idea was not accepted by her coworkers but that did not stop her and in 1952 she created world’s first compiler. She also developed COBOL programming language that allowed programs to be written in a way similar to English language and which is still used. In this way, she started the idea of machine-independent programming languages. Her work at that time massively influenced modern computer science.
Grace tried to retire from the Navy several times but was recalled to active duty. She worked on technology standards for the US Navy and then, even after she permanently retired, she remained in the computer industry, working as a senior consultant at Digital Equipment Corporation.
Awards and Achievements
Several of the most important achievements of Grace Hopper are:
- 40 honorary degrees from universities around the world
- Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award in 1964
- first ever Computer Science Man-of-the-Year Award from the Data Processing Management Association in 1969
- Being the first woman to become a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society(1973)
- National Medal of Technology in 1991 (she was the first woman to receive this award as an individual)
- Hopper finally retired from the Navy in 1986 with the rank of rear admiral, aged almost 80 and was at that time the oldest active-duty officer in the United States Navy.
- The term “debugging” is associated with an incident during her work on Harvard Mark 2 where a live moth was discovered stuck inside the computer and causing it to malfunction.
- Grace Hopper was also called Amazing Grace and Grandma COBOL.
- In 1997, the USS Hopper destroyer was named in her honour, and was the second US Navy ship named after a woman.