Women You Missed in History Class: Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”-Grace Hopper

 When Grace Hopper was seven years old, she decided she wanted to figure out how clocks worked, so she took apart every clock in the house.  Fortunately her parents supported their daughter’s curiosity, and instead of punishing her, they limited her to one clock at a time.  Born December 9, 1906 in New York City, young Grace Hopper was a very curious child who showed a remarkable talent for mathematics.  Both of these qualities would prove essential in her illustrious career as a computer programmer with the US Navy, a career which earned her the nickname “Amazing Grace.”

 Hopper first joined the US Naval Reserve in 1943 and served in the WAVES. (Side note: If you haven’t read up on the WACs and the WAVES, you really should, because they were some pretty cool ladies.)  She graduated first in her class and earned the rank of lieutenant, and in 1944, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation project, where she served on the Mark I computer programming staff.  In the 1950s, she developed the first compiler, which could transform English language instructions into code that could be read by a computer.  Her idea that programming languages could use English words was widely disregarded for several years, and even after she developed the working compiler, she said that still, “Nobody believed that.  I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it.  They told me computers could only do arithmetic.”

Hopper’s innovation in programming ended up being the precursor for COBOL, one of the most widely used programming languages which is still in use today.  From 1967 to 1977, she served as the director of the Navy Programming Languages group, where she continued her work on COBOL.  In 1973, she was promoted to the rank of captain, and in 1983, she achieved the rank of rear admiral.  She tried to retire from the Navy twice–once in 1966 and once in 1971–but both times, she was recalled to active duty to continue her important programming work.  When she finally retired at the age of 80 in 1986, she was the oldest serving officer in the Navy.

By the time of her death in 1992, she had been awarded 40 honorary degrees from universities all over the world, and had received the National Medal of Technology and been made Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society.  She was also the first winner of the “Computer Science Man of the Year” award from the Data Processing Management Association.  In 1996, the Navy missile destroyer USS Hopper was named after her, one of only a few military vessels named after women, and just last year she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


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