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There Would Be No Steve Jobs Without Grace Hopper

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If you’re familiar with any of the women who helped shape the computer age, the name of Ada Lovelace might ring a bell, but you should definitely also familiarize yourself with the name Grace Hopper.

A colorful Navy veteran (the 11th woman to earn a doctorate in math from Yale University), Hopper reported for duty at Harvard University in 1944, expecting to be working on cryptography projects. But she ended up working with computer pioneer Howard Aiken on the “Mark I,” a 51-foot long, 8-foot tall electro-mechanical computer built to tackle advanced mathematics problems. A successor to the punched-card reader, the Mark I computed math problems by reading instructions from a punched paper tape and had 1,440 switches for manually entering data.

Hopper’s first task, once she familiarized herself with the machinery, was to write a book about the Mark I. This eventually became a 500-page history of computing as well as a manual for programming the behemoth calculator. Later, she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation to help develop the first large-scale commercial computer, the UNIVAC. There, she developed one of the first working compilers, a way to translate instructions from one programming language to another. This leap forward in computing was initially viewed with skepticism in the early 1950s.

“I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it,” Hopper said. “They told me computers could only do arithmetic.”

The term “debugging” also became common computer science parlance thanks to Hopper’s work. In this case, Hopper and her team noted in a 1947 log entry that a dead moth had been found between two relay points of the Mark I, and taped the specimen into the book for proof:

hopperbug

Hopper also influenced the development of the programming language COBOL (standing for COmmon Business-Oriented Language), which incorporated elements from her compiler-based language FLOW-MATIC, developed for business applications like automatic billing and calculating employee payrolls. Hopper also pushed for the programs to be written in a language more like English than the more esoteric machine codes; letters, she thought, were something computers could master just as easily as numbers.

Her gifts with language as well as numbers manifested themselves in a wit that matched her outsize personality—she’s credited with coining the phrase “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission,” among other bon mots. You can see her candor on display in this 1986 interview with David Letterman:

As Hopper was mindful of the programmers who came before—she said that she never forgot the fundamental contributions Ada Lovelace made—so do we hope that future generations will remember the wit and wisdom of Grace Hopper, who always looked to the future:

“We’re flooding people with information,” she once said. “We need to feed it through a processor. A human must turn information into intelligence or knowledge. We’ve tended to forget that no computer will ever ask a new question.”

 

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Comments

  1. .Cujo359 WorldSciFest I knew the etymology of “bug,” but didn’t realize Grace Hopper was the first debugger.

  2. .Cujo359 WorldSciFest Which reminds me of Murphy’s Law corollary, “The Law of Cybernetic Entomology: There’s always another bug.”

  3. Let’s not forget she’s also the other of Dennis Hopper. Oh, I knew of her back in ’75.

  4. The NYTimes obituary (1992) of Rear Admiral Hopper lists the only survivors as “a brother, Dr. Roger F. Murray II of New Hampshire, and a sister, Mary Murray Westcote of New Jersey.” She did help to invent the COBOL programming language, however.

  5. Jobs would have pioneered the industry in other ways. Speaking without theory, you can’t change who a person is or who they become, just how they do it.

  6. I was fortunate to attend one of her lectures given to Hennepin County IT staff. I got one of the nanosecond wires. She wore her Navy dress uniform. It was probably the best meeting I ever attended.

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