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.
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
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