Design Con 2015

Mother of COBOL Grace Murray Hopper is born, December 9, 1906

-December 09, 2014

Grace Murray HopperGrace Murray Hopper didn't take no for an answer.

She didn't accept that girls shouldn't study math, or quit when the Navy said she couldn't enlist because of her size and age, and she proved everyone wrong when it was believed that data processing problems could only deal with numbers.

Born in New York in 1906, Hopper was the granddaughter of a senior civil engineer for the city of New York, and the daughter of a woman that wanted to study mathematics, but was held back by the social norms of the late 1800s.

Motivated by her mother and supported by her father, Hopper attended private schools, graduated from Vassar College, and received her masters degree in Mathematics and Physics, before becoming the first woman to receive a PhD in Mathematics from Yale University.

She was teaching mathematics at Vassar when she decided to serve her country during World War II. She had to overcome some obstacles because of her size and age and get special permission to leave Vassar, but she was sworn into the US Navy Reserve in December 1943 at age 34. She joined the WAVES (women accepted for volunteer emergency service) program, as women hadn't achieved permanent status in the armed services yet.

Once there, she was assigned to the bureau of ordinance computation project at Harvard University where she joined the first programming team for the Mark I computer. It was the largest electromechanical calculator ever built and the first automatic digital calculator in the United States.

In 1946 Hopper was released from active duty and worked at Harvard's Computation Laboratory on the Mark II and III. While there, she popularized the term "computer bug" after her team found a moth causing problems inside the Mark II.

Grace Murray Hopper COBOLThree years later she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and worked on designing the first commercial large-scale electronic computer, UNIVAC I. Hopper thought computer language should be more like human language than machine code to make it easier to use, so, after Remington Rand took over the company, Hopper began developing the first compiler. As the company's first director of automatic programming, she worked on the development of compiler-based languages including MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC, which made it possible for computers to respond to words rather than numbers.

Soon after, Hopper attended the Conference on Data Systems Languages where FLOW-MATIC served as an inspiration in developing COBOL (common business oriented language), one of the first modern programming languages. COBOL made computers more user-friendly, which made them useful for a wide range of applications, not just for solving math problems and doing calculations. Her work on the program earned her the nickname "mother of COBOL."

Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve in 1966, but was recalled to active duty the next year to work on an automatic data processing project. She was promoted to Captain, then to Commodore by special presidential appointment, and finally to Rear Admiral at age 79.

She involuntarily retired in 1986 at age 80 and received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award given by the Department of Defense.

She also received many industry awards, including the first computer sciences "man of the year" award from the Data Processing Management Association in 1969, and the Harry M Goode Memorial Award from the Computer Society a year later.

After retiring Hopper was a consultant to the Digital Equipment Corporation where she continued to attend forums and make presentations until 1990. You can watch her appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman below.


Hopper died on January 1, 1992 and was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. The Grace Murray Hopper Service Center data processing facility, the USS Hopper Navy destroyer, and the NERSEC Cray XE6 Hopper supercomputer were all named after her.

Also, Computer Science Education Week (December 9-15) was developed by the Computing in the Core coalition to celebrate Hopper's birthday. Now run by code.org, the event is designed to inspire students to take interest in computer science, and features the Hour of Code campaign that offers lessons in computer coding aimed at every age group and accessible on a range of devices.

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For more moments in tech history, see this blog. EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

Editor's note: This article was originally posted on December 9, 2013 and edited on December 9, 2014.
 

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