In 1981, Congress passed a proclamation creating a women’s history week. Six years later, the nationally recognized tribute was extended to an entire month. The National Women’s History Project has announced that this year’s theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” In keeping with this year’s theme, I wanted to share with you one woman I truly admire, a pioneer without whom our “modern” world would not be as modern.
Long before Microsoft and Apple, in technological terms…eons before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs arrived on the scene, in a time that today’s youth may even consider the “dark ages” of technology (before we had devices to record countless hours of television for mindless entertainment), lived a woman named Grace Hopper.
On December 9, 1906, Walter Fletcher Murray and his wife, Mary Campbell Horne, gave birth to their first child. Little did they know on that day that their daughter, Grace, would grow up to change the world.
Grace was noted for being an inquisitive child and lore has it that she was dissembling alarm clocks by age 7 to determine how they worked. The Murray’s encouraged all of their children to be the best they could and learn as much as they were able. Mary Murray studied geometry and mathematics long before it was socially acceptable. Walter was a successful insurance broker despite the fact he had lost both legs. The couple nurtured and inspired all of their children.
When Grace was 16 she applied to Vassar but did not gain admittance because her scores in Latin were too low. The following year she reapplied and began her college career. In 1928 Grace graduated Vassar with a bachelors in math and physics and went on to Yale University to earn her masters and in 1930. In 1931 she began teaching math at Vassar while pursuing her doctorate at Yale. After completing her advanced degree work in 1934 she received a promotion to associate professor at Vassar. She married a lecturer, Vincent Hopper, from another New York college in 1930 but the marriage lasted only a little more than a decade.
Grace remained at Vassar until 1943 when she enlisted in the WAVEs. The Murray family had a proud history of military service dating back to the Revolution and Hopper was not going to let the fact that she was underweight, by military standards, bar her from enlisting. She received a waiver from the government in order to serve the Navy starting out as a Lieutenant. Hopper’s first Naval accomplishment was graduating first in her class at Midshipman’s school.
Hopper was dispatched to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation at Harvard and served under Commander Howard Aiken. Her first task was conquering one of the first electronic computers, designated Mark I. Hopper spent time learning the intricacies of the machine and authored a 500 page user manual to guide other operators in programming calculations via punch cards.. Hopper went on to master the Mark II and Mark III and was presented with the Naval Ordinance Development Award in 1946.
Forced to retire from the Navy due to her age, Hopper joined the Navy Reserves and accepted a fellowship in engineering and applied physics at Harvard. In 1949, after three years, she left and took a position as a senior mathematician with a private firm. The company developed and produced the BINAC and UNIVAC systems. Hopper learned binary math and used it to simplify computer programming.
In the 1950s she developed what is known as a compiler to simplify computer programming by allowing developers to use common routines and an easier language. Her development led to one of the first standardized computer “languages,” COBOL. Hopper was called from the Navy Reserves back to active duty to create a payroll system for the Navy. After her 6 month tour ended, Hopper’s term was extended indefinitely.
For many years Hopper continued to work in computers and programming. She developed several ideas and practices that are still adhered to today. She became famous for her use of plain wires a little less than 12 inches in length to demonstrate to people what a nanosecond was. The length of wire represented the length that energy travelling at the speed of light could travel in one billionth of a second. She is known for handing out these wires to students, politicians, bureaucrats and anybody that didn’t seem to comprehend that computer systems needed to be smaller to be faster and how programs had to be designed to not waste even one nanosecond. Hopper even introduced the idea of using smaller, networked computers in the Navy to allow several people to operate the main system at one time and permit the use of standard programming.
In 1969, Hopper was named the first "man of the year" in computer science by the Data Processing Management Association. In 1973, she was made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society, being the first woman and the first American to be given the honor. The Navy Meritorious Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the National Medal of Technology, and the Defense Distinguished Service Medal are among some of the many other honors awarded to Hopper.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan promoted Hopper to Commodore. The rank was eliminated in 1985 and Hopper became a rear admiral. The next year, at age 80 and being the oldest active-duty Naval officer, Hopper was forced to retire. Her retirement ceremony was held aboard the USS Constitution in Boston. Grace Hopper spent the rest of her life as a teacher and also as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Company.
Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper passed away on the First of January, 1992. She lays in rest with full honors at Arlington National. On January 6, 1996, the naval destroyer USS Hopper was christened. Her memory lives on not only aboard the “Amazing Grace,” but in the hearts and minds of those of us who are not only “techies,” but who also admire the pioneering spirits of those who came before us and who gave us all the possibilities we have today.
Admiral Hopper is one of many women who have helped shape history, improve the quality of life, and generally make the world a better place and this little synopsis does her no justice. Every family should keep track of their accomplishments for future generations. Any victory, no matter how minor it may seem, any idea, principle, and belief that makes us better people, needs to be passed on from mothers and grandmothers to daughters and sons and granddaughters and grandsons alike. The same goes for fathers and grandfathers but I believe that well-developed children need to see positive examples in both genders to succeed in making life better everywhere.
To learn more about Grace Hopper simply Google her name. To learn more about your family and yourself, record your memories, seek the wisdom of your elders, and pass all of it along to the next generation.
Admiral Grace M. Hopper in the 1980s
Until Next month,
To tie the title in...without the advances in programming and technology that Hopper brought about, these so-called "whole house" dvr systems that we now enjoy would most likely not exist in our time.