Grace Hopper was a mathematician and computer programming pioneer who excelled in male dominated fields. She wrote programs that made computers accessible to all and developed the COBOL computer language.
Name: Grace Murray Hopper
Birth Date: December 9, 1906 – January 1, 1992
Job Functions: Mathematician and Computer Scientist
Fields: Mathematics, Computer Science, Programming Languages
Known For: Developed the programming language COBOL
Mentor: Henry Sealy White
Lessons from Grace Hopper
- Replicate tasks you perform all the time, and look outside for solutions to challenges you are facing: To reduce the number of programming errors, Hopper and her colleagues collected programs that were free of error and generated a catalogue of subroutines that could be used to develop new programs.
- Accept opportunities that stretch you and build intellectual capacity: Hopper did not know anything about computing, yet she accepted a role that called for it, learned quickly and excelled.
- Be persistent and choose battles that will make a difference: Hopper had to fight for a commission as a member of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). She was considered to be old at age 38, her role as professor of mathematics was considered a “crucial” civilian occupation, and at weight 105 pounds, she didn’t meet navy regulations requiring that she weigh at least 121 pounds and be 5′6″ tall.
- Lear to problem-solve: Hopper had to develop ways to express mathematical problems in digital machine code. After figuring out how to write machine instructions, she had to punch them on tape.
- You are smarter than you think. Grace Hopper was handed a code book and asked to write computer programs. Accept challenging projects to stretch your mental capacity.
- Replicate tasks you perform all the time to make it easy.
- When faced with a new problem or challenge, research to see who has solved the same problem before, and how they solved it.
- Acquire job skills that are in demand.
Grace Hopper’s Steps to Success
- Parents stimulated her intellectual curiosity. Her father encouraged her to pursue the same educational path as her brother, and to acquire job skills that would make her self-sufficient. Her parents’ encouragement allowed her to freely explore her home to determine how mechanical devices worked.
- Attended prestigious Vassar College, where she concentrated on mathematics and physics. Graduated in 1928 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics and physics. Awarded a Vassar College Fellowship to pursue graduate study at Yale University. Two years later received a Master of Arts degree in mathematics. Continued graduate studies at Yale and was one of the only two women enrolled in the mathematics doctoral program.
- In 1931, started to teach mathematics at Vassar while studying at Yale. Received PhD in mathematics in 1934, and was the only woman to receive the seven doctorates in mathematics granted by Yale between 1934 and 1937. Spent nine years advancing from assistant to associate professor while teaching at Vassar College.
- In 1941, used her Vassar faculty fellowship to study under Richard Courant at New York University, and worked with him on the calculus of variations and on differential geometry. Used her work with Courant on partial differential equations in her navy job classification card.
- At age 37 in December 1943, Hopper was sworn in the US Navy Reserve. In June 1944, was commissioned as lieutenant and sent to Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University.
- Howard Aiken, a naval reserve officer, and professor of physics and applied mathematics, was assigned to command the Harvard Computation Laboratory for the navy, and Hopper was a member of the team he assembled and trained to do that. Hopper was put to work calculating “coefficients for the interpolation of arc tangents.” Aiken was also her mentor and she learned about the idea of a general purpose computer from him.
- At the Computation Lab she wrote computer code to direct the operation of the Mark I, although she had no experience in coding – she was handed a code book and asked to begin computations.
- After Ada Lovelace (See profile of Ada Lovelace, First Computer Programmer), Hopper and her colleagues are considered the first computer programmers.
- After figuring out how to write machine instructions, she had to punch them on tape. She and her colleagues had to learn how to talk to Mark I, which is the essence of computer programming.
- Wrote a manual for Mark I and worked on writing codes for Mark II and Mark III.
- In 1949, she accepted a mathematics position at the Eckert-Mauchley Computer Corporation, that developed the BINAC (Binary Automatic Computer), which used code, rather than punched cards, for data entry. Programmed BINAC with a base eight numerical system.
- When Eckert-Mauchley Computer Corporation was acquired by Remington Rand Corporation, Hopper was designated a systems engineer and director of Automatic Programming Development for the UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) Division.
- Worked with the inventors of the UNIVAC computer and focused on improving the compiler design to translate mathematical code to machine code for performing processes. Used a strategy from basketball – the forward pass, to achieve “forward jumps” in a computer program. (See profile of James Naismith, Father of Basketball)
- Innovated Flow-Matic, a compiler that understood English instructions so that the UNIVAC computers could be used for business applications.
- Focused on standardizing a universal programming language. She developed COBOL – Common Business Oriented Language, which was adopted by US Defense Department.
- Retired in 1986 at the rank of Rear Admiral, and at the time was the oldest active duty officer.
- After retirement from the Navy, worked as a senior consultant for the Digital Equipment Corporation until her death, on January 1, 1992.
Biggest Accomplishments Why Grace Hopper’s Contribution Matters
- Developed COBOL, a universal programming language, which understood English instructions and was business oriented.
- Write computer programs that made computers more accessible to all.
Ideas That Matter
Grace Hopper first got the education then acquired the job skills that would make her self-sufficient. Her phenomenal success was due to a strong intellect and work ethic.
Why would Grace Hopper make a good invisible mentor?
Her colleagues told her that only scientists had enough knowledge to understand computers. Hopper didn’t listen to them and continued to write programs that made computers more accessible. Her programming work formed the basis for later computing applications.
Awards and Honours
- In 1962, elected fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
- In1963, elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
- In1969, named “Man of the Year” by the Data Processing Management Association.
- In 1973, her work earned her the navy’s Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal in 1986.
- In 1983, she was promoted to commodore.
- In 1985, she became a rear admiral and was the first female admiral in naval history.
- In 1991, President Bush presented her with the National Medal of Technology.
Encyclopedia of World Biography
Science and Its Times
New Dictionary of Scientific Biography
Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia
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