Women in Computer Science: A Look at the Amazing Grace Hopper


Grace Hopper, born December 9th 1906, was an American scientist, United States Navy rear admiral, one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, and pioneer of computer programming who invented one of the first compiler related tools that was a precursor to the widely used COBOL language. She helped create the first all-electronic digital computer, called UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer). NASA’s tracking stations for the Apollo moon missions used UNIVAC hardware to communicate with the astronauts. Without UNIVAC, Apollo would never have been possible.

Grace was a curious child. At a young age, she decided to determine how an alarm clock worked and dismantled seven clocks before her mother realized what she was doing. Grace’s mother encouraged her interests but she did limit the inquisitive girl to dismantling only one alarm clock at a time. Grace’s father wanted all his children to have the same opportunities and supported his daughters and son equally – quite a progressive stance in the early 20th century. With her parents’ encouragement, she went on to study math and physics at Vassar then Yale, earning her PhD in mathematics, becoming the first woman to accomplish the latter.

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After graduating, Grace stayed at Vassar to teach math for the next ten years before turning to the US Navy in 1943. She had to obtain an exemption to enlist since she weighed 15 pounds below the required weight. Despite what could have been a disadvantage, she graduated first in her class and was assigned the rank of lieutenant, junior grade. She was immediately assigned to the programming staff for the new Mark I computer at Harvard University.

“To me programming is more than an important practical art. It is also a gigantic undertaking in the foundations of knowledge.” 

During her time at Harvard, Grace Hopper’s most famous anecdote occurred: She and her team of associates were having a hard time figuring out what was causing a glitch in the Mark II computer they were working with. Finally, they discovered the source of the issue: a live moth was stuck in one of the electrical switches controlling a circuit. Grace loved to tell the story about how they “debugged” the early computer by removing the moth, bringing the obscure engineering term into popular use in computer science.

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In 1949, Grace joined the Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation and was part of the development team that designed the UNIVAC I computer. It was at Eckert–Mauchly that she began developing the compiler. She believed that computer code could be written in English by using a programming language that was based on English words. The compiler would convert that code into machine code that would be understood by computers. By 1952, she finished her program linker (originally called a compiler), which was written for the A-0 System. She later said that “Nobody believed that,” and that she “had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. They told me computers could only do arithmetic.”

“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, “Try it.” And I back ’em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ’em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.” 

In 1954, Eckert–Mauchly chose Grace to lead their department for automatic programming, and she led the release of some of the first compiled languages like FLOW-MATIC. In 1959, she participated in the CODASYL consortium, which consulted her to guide them in creating a machine-independent programming language. This led to the COBOL language, which was inspired by her idea of a language being based on English words.

Grace continued to work on COBOL as the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group and was promoted to captain in 1973. Throughout the seventies, she pioneered work in designing and implementing technology standards for the US Navy. The tests and standards she developed were later adopted by the National Bureau of Standards (today called the National Institute of Standards and Technology) and helped to shape the future of programming.

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Grace tried to retire twice but both times she was recalled to active duty indefinitely. She was promoted to commodore in 1983, a title that was later renamed to “rear admiral, lower half,” and finally retired for the last time in 1986 at the age of 80. At the time, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the US Navy. At her retirement she was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat award possible by the Department of Defense. She then worked as a consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation until her death in 1992.

Nicknamed “Amazing Grace,” Grace Hopper serves as a role model and inspiration to women working in a variety of STEM fields today. Without her work and the influence of her ideas on the development of computer programming, the field of computer science would look very different today.

During her lifetime, Grace Hopper was awarded 40 honorary degrees from universities around the world, along with numerous awards and honors including:

  • First winner of “Computer Science Man of the Year” award from the Data Processing Management Association in 1969
  • First person from the United States and the first woman from any country to be made Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society in 1973
  • First woman to receive the National Medal of Technology as an individual in 1991

The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper was named for her, as was the Cray XE6 “Hopper” supercomputer at NERSC. On November 22, 2016, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

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