Meet Grace Hopper, the Pioneering Computer Scientist Who Helped Invent COBOL and Build the Historic Mark I Computer (1906–1992)

On a page for its School of Tech­nol­o­gy, Ras­mussen Col­lege lists six “Assump­tions to Avoid” for women who want to enter the field of com­put­er sci­ence. I couldn’t com­ment on whether these “assump­tions” (alleged mis­con­cep­tions like “the work envi­ron­ment is hos­tile to women”) are actu­al­ly dis­proved by the com­men­tary. But I might sug­gest a sev­enth “assump­tion to avoid”—that women haven’t always been com­put­er sci­en­tists, inte­gral to the devel­op­ment of the com­put­er, pro­gram­ming lan­guages, and every oth­er aspect of com­put­ing, even 100 years before com­put­ers exist­ed.

In fact, one of the most notable women in com­put­er sci­ence, Grace Hop­per, served as a mem­ber of the Har­vard team that built the first com­put­er, the room-sized Mark I designed in 1944 by physics pro­fes­sor Howard Aiken. Hop­per also helped devel­op COBOL, the first uni­ver­sal pro­gram­ming lan­guage for busi­ness, still wide­ly in use today, a sys­tem based on writ­ten Eng­lish rather than on sym­bols or num­bers. And she is cred­it­ed with coin­ing the term “com­put­er bug” (and by exten­sion “debug”), when she and her asso­ciates found a moth stuck inside the Mark II in 1947. (“From then on,” she told Time mag­a­zine in 1984, “when any­thing went wrong with a com­put­er, we said it had bugs in it.”)

These are but a few of her achieve­ments in a com­put­er sci­ence career that spanned more than 42 years, dur­ing which time she rose through the ranks of the Naval Reserves, then lat­er active naval duty, retir­ing as the old­est com­mis­sioned offi­cer, a rear admi­ral, at age 79.

In addi­tion to win­ning dis­tin­guished awards and com­men­da­tions over the course of her career—including the first-ever com­put­er sci­ence “Man of the Year” award—Hopper also acquired a few dis­tin­guished nick­names, includ­ing “Amaz­ing Grace” and “Grand­ma COBOL.” She may become known to a new gen­er­a­tion by the nick­name, “Queen of Code,” the title of a recent doc­u­men­tary from FiveThirtyEight’s “Sig­nals” series. Direct­ed by Com­mu­ni­ty star Gillian Jacobs, the short film, which you can watch in full here, tells the sto­ry of her “inim­itable lega­cy as a bril­liant pro­gram­mer and pio­neer­ing woman in a male-dom­i­nat­ed field,” writes Alli­son McCann at FiveThir­tyEight.

Hopper’s name may be “mys­te­ri­ous­ly absent from many his­to­ry books,” as Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls notes, but before her death in 1992, she was intro­duced to mil­lions through TV appear­ances on shows like Late Night with David Let­ter­man (top) and 60 Min­utes, just above. As you’ll see in these clips, Hop­per wasn’t just a crack math­e­mati­cian and pro­gram­mer but also an ace pub­lic speak­er whose dead­pan humor cracked up Let­ter­man and the groups of stu­dents and fel­low sci­en­tists she fre­quent­ly addressed.

The 60 Min­utes seg­ment notes that Hop­per became “one of that small band of broth­ers and sis­ters who ush­ered in the com­put­er rev­o­lu­tion” when she left her professor’s job at Vas­sar at the start of WWII to serve in the Naval Reserve, where she was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Com­pu­ta­tion Project at Har­vard. But she nev­er stopped being an edu­ca­tor and con­sid­ered “train­ing young peo­ple” her sec­ond-most impor­tant accom­plish­ment. In this, her lega­cy lives on as well.

The world’s largest gath­er­ing of women tech­nol­o­gists is called “The Grace Hop­per Cel­e­bra­tion.” And a doc­u­men­tary in pro­duc­tion called Born with Curios­i­ty (see a teas­er above) hopes that “shin­ing a light on and human­iz­ing role mod­els like Grace makes them relat­able in a way that inspires oth­ers to great­ness.” At a time when women make up the low­est enroll­ment in com­put­er sci­ence out of all of the STEM fields, Hopper’s exam­ple and encour­age­ment may be much need­ed.

via Men­tal Floss

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Ada Lovelace, Daugh­ter of Lord Byron, Wrote the First Com­put­er Pro­gram in 1842–a Cen­tu­ry Before the First Com­put­er

The Map of Com­put­er Sci­ence: New Ani­ma­tion Presents a Sur­vey of Com­put­er Sci­ence, from Alan Tur­ing to “Aug­ment­ed Real­i­ty”

Intro­duc­tion to Com­put­er Sci­ence and Pro­gram­ming: A Free Course from MIT 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.