Dr. Grace Murray Hopper was born on December 9, 1906. As a child Grace Hopper enjoyed learning about machines, technology and other countries cultures. Following her mother’s love for mathematics and her father’s love for literature, Grace had high expectations for herself. Family life was large influence as she grew up, from the close relationship she had with her grandfather, a surveyor in New York City, she learned about real life at a young age. Her father, Walter Fletcher Murray, was a successful insurance broker, also taught Grace the importance of a good education to succeed in life.
Her mother, Mary Campbell Horne Murray, perused a career in geometry by special arrangement even though it was not an encouraged job for women at this time. Grace’s great-grandfather, Alexander Russel, inspired her interest in the Navy. Russel had been a rear admiral for the US Navy, a position Grace also filled in her lifetime. Grace’s parents were progressive in their views of education for females, firmly certifying Grace’s pursuit of higher learning.
Her father believed that Grace deserved a college education as much as his son did, and, with the coming of the depression, he thought it overbearing in order to secure a job in desperate economic times. To that end, Grace attended Vassar College in 1924, and quickly distinguished herself there in the disciplines of science, specifically mathematics and physics. She graduated in 1928 with Phi Beta Kappa honors and a Vassar College Fellowship, and with that scholarship financed continued graduate study in math at Yale University, earning there an MA in 1930 and a Ph.D. in 1934, as well as two Sterling Scholarships and an election to Sigma Xi. It was also during that time that Grace married Vincent Hopper, an English teacher from New York University. After the outbreak of World War II, Grace enlisted in the Navy, despite the disapproval of female cadets. With a Wanting to follow her Grandfathers footsteps Grace perused a naval career even though she did not meet the weight and height requirements to join WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). But Grace received a weight and height waiver and took a leave of absence from Vassar College to join the Navy, even though the government thought that Grace’s mathematics skills would be better used at home. But she overcame this obstacle too and joined the Midshipman’s School for Women. Grace graduated first in her class as Lieutenant Junior Grade Grace Murray Hopper. From there Grace was assigned to work at the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project, at Harvard University, to work with computers. Hopper worked under Commander Howard Aiken, and helped work with the Mark I, the first computer automatically sequenced to calculate the angles for the naval guns when the weather is bad. Hopper continued to work on the Mark II and the Mark III. For her achievements with this series she was given the Naval Ordinance Award in 1946.
After the War many of the WAVES went back to their normal lives, but Grace, having just divorced her husband Vincent Foster Hopper, wanted to stay in the Navy. But Grace had just turned forty and the maximum age was thirty-eight, so Grace had to leave. She stayed at the Harvard Computational Lab, still being a member of the Naval Reserves.
In 1966, the Navy asked Hopper to retire again, but after seven months, they found they couldn’t work without her and asked her return. Grace was asked to return to work for six months, but she ended up staying indefinitely. Upon graduating, Grace was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation at Harvard University. There she was greeted by Commander Howard Aiken who introduced her to Mark I as “a computer engine”. After coming acquainted with the device, Grace received her first mission from Aiken, which was “to have the coefficients for the interpolation of the arc tangents by next Thursday”. Officers Robert Campbell and Richard Bloch assisted her in the design of her computer program, which consequently made her the third person ever to program the first large-scale automatically sequenced digital computer in the world. When Grace was programming it, Mark I was being used to calculate the angles at which naval guns were to be aimed. A plethora of calculations were needed because the angles depended on weather conditions. Creating programs for the machine was similarly tedious for Grace and the company. “The coding sheets we used had three columns on the left [for code numbers] and we wrote comments on the right which didn’t go into the computer,” as she said. The values were translated to punch tape, which was subsequently input into the computer. With the accustomed problems associated with the Mark development and the inherent difficulty in its programming, results were slow achievements. One of their many problems was the proverbial computer bug, except that this time it was a literal problem. During the building of the Mark II, the predecessor of the former computer engine, the computer suddenly and for no apparent reason stopped. Upon inspection of the computer, Grace and her team found a moth, which had flown into a relay from an open window. The moth had been pulverized by the relay and consequently had caused the device to fail. The term “bug” was thus popularized to signify any system malfunction.
A new machine BINAC was soon developed programmed in the more effective C-10 language, which according to Grace, “has been the basis for most codes since. A was add, M was multiply, B was bring, C was clear; it was a beautiful code.” Performed in octal, the programs forced Grace to teach herself octal arithmetic, which she eventually mastered with great proficiency. She subsequently realized a need to simplify the computing process, to make it more layperson friendly. Grace pursued different avenues to achieve this goal. Grace created her first compiler with the Sperry Corporation in 1952. Known as the A-0, the system was a set of instructions that translated mathematical code into machine language. Later the A-1 and A-2 systems evolved under her direction, and became the forerunner to modern programming languages. She pioneered the integration of English into programs, as well, with the B-0 compiler, later to be known as the FLOW-MATIC. Targeted for business applications, Grace’s machine were effectively using FLOW-MATIC to understand English phrases. By 1957 three major languages existed for computers: APT, FORTRAN, and FLOW-MATIC. Each language, however, could only operate on a specific platform, and with the proliferation of disparate languages the use of a single, uniform format came into demand. The universal language to remedy this problem was COBOL, and even though she was not involved in the project, much of which was based on Grace’s FLOW-MATIC. Throughout Grace Hopper’s life she achieved many awards that other women had never been recognized for. In 1964 she was awarded the Society of Women Engineers, SWE Achievement Award. Many people think of the Computer Sciences “Man of the Year Award” her greatest achievement. When she received this award in 1969, she was the first person ever assigned this award, and the first women to be presented any award by the Data Processing Management Association. Grace was the first woman to be inducted into the Distinguished Fellow British Computer Society in 1973. Grace also achieved many awards from the Colleges and Universities that she attended and taught at, such as the Upsilon Pi Epsilon, Honorary Member from Texas A&M; Honorary Doctor of Engineering, Newark College of Engineering; Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal and Yale University. Grace taught at many colleges and universities in her life and gave many motivational speeches, her favorite teaching aid was a piece of wire that was the length of a nanosecond (about one foot), the maximum distance electricity can travel in wire in one-billionth of a second. She would then compare the nano-second to the microsecond that was over a thousand feet long. On January 1, 1992, Grace Hopper died at the age of 85. Even after her death Grace continues to influence many peoples lives. The impact she had on the world of programming has changed computers forever. She also influenced the naval and other military services through her perseverance and her plans for the future. She refused to let anything get in the way of her success.
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