Grace Hopper: a Woman of Many Firsts

Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USNR Official portrait photograph, by James S. Davis. Public domain.

Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USNR Official portrait photograph, by James S. Davis. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Grace Hopper was a woman of many firsts – she was the first woman promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral of the Navy, she helped develop the first compiler, she was awarded the first Computer Sciences Man of the Year award from the Data Processing Management Association, she was the first woman to receive National Medal of Technology, and she was the first American and the first woman to ever be recognized as a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. Her vision for the future of computing, and her dogged pursuit in spite of continued opposition to her vision of what a computer could be, have had an undeniable impact on the pervasive presence of technology we sometimes take for granted today. She operated under the philosophy of “go ahead and do it, you can apologize later”, a philosophy that can easily be taken to heart by anyone working in computer science today.

Early life and education

Grace Brewster Murray was born December 9, 1906. She was a curious child, dismantling seven alarm clocks at the age of seven to see how they worked (her mother limited her to tinkering with only one clock after finding out what she was doing). She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with her BA in Mathematics and Physics from Vassar in 1928. After graduating, she accepted a position at Vassar as an Assistant Professor, a position she held while also working on her Masters in Mathematics at Yale in 1930 and PhD in 1934. She remained as a professor at Vassar through 1943 when she took a leave of absence to join the US Naval Reserve. Her enlistment was a hard fight because at 34, she was too old, and she was underweight for an enlistee, and they believed that her position as a civilian Mathematics professor was too valuable. After fighting for exceptions, she was accepted into the WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) program.

That Famous “Computer Bug” Was an Actual Bug!:  World War II and After

Grace Hopper was sent to train at the Naval Reserve Midshipman’s School and graduated first in her class in 1944. Because of her strong mathematics background she was assigned to Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard where she worked on the Mark computer series. She was the third person to program a Mark I computer, and she quickly recognized the potential future for computers. After WWII she resigned from her leave of absence at Vassar to join Harvard’s Computation Laboratory as a research fellow, working with Mark II and Mark III computers.
It was during this period that she encountered the infamous computer bug—a moth that had shorted out the Mark II. She is credited with popularizing the term “computer bug” (though not necessarily coining the term itself).


The first computer bug. Image: U.S. Naval Historical Center Online Library Photograph, via Wikimedia Commons.

After the war she remained in the Navy as a reserve officer and joined the Remington Rand company, overseeing programming of their UNIVAC computer. In 1952 her team created first compiler (FLOW-MATIC); she fought for years to convince industry that machines could be “taught” to understand human-readable programming languages. The language she helped create was the precursor to COBOL. This was the first programming language written using English-like instructions, instead of machine code or languages close to machine code like assembly language. She retired from the Navy in 1966 but was recalled at age 60 to help standardize communication between different languages being developed and utilized by the Navy and wider military. She was forced because of her age to retire in 1986 at the age of 80. She had been made Rear Admiral at this point, and was the oldest serving officer in the service. Saying that she would be “bored stiff” to stop working completely, she accepted a position as a senior consultant in the private sector, where she remained until she passed away at the age of 84. She was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Her (incomplete) list of honors and awards listed on the naval webpage stretches for more than a page. Below is a small sampling:

1963 – Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

1972 to 1986 – thirty seven honorary doctorates from institutions across the country

1973 – Elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering.

1973 – Legion of Merit

1973 – Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society

1976 – Distinguished Member Award, Washington D.C. Chapter, ACM [Association for Computing Machinery]

1980 – Meritorious Service Medal

1983 – Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Computer Pioneer Medal

1983 – Association for Computing Machinery Distinguished Service Award

1985 – The Grace Murray Hopper Service Center built at NARDAC [Navy Regional Data Automation Center] San Diego.

1986 – Defense Distinguished Service Medal

1990 – National Medal of Technology

Grace Hopper and the impact of the Compiler: Her Contributions to Computing

Her contributions to the world of computer science cannot be overstated. While championing the adoption of compilers that would allow programmers to write software in English, she was constantly told that “things weren’t done that way”, so they shouldn’t change. She never accepted this as the way things should be, and because of her, we write code in beautiful languages like Java and MySQL, instead of trying to speak the machine-understood language of 0’s and 1’s. She simply didn’t accept the common notion at the time, which was that computers would never be capable of advancing beyond arithmetic operations written using machine language.

In 1952 Grace Hopper began working on A-0, the precursor to the compiler and modern programming languages. A-0 was a collection of subroutines recorded on a tape, each with a call number identifier. She created a compiled program by writing a series of call numbers which the computer would locate on the tape. After presenting her work, she was met with the opinion that “computers couldn’t write their own programs”. It took two years before this view would change. Grace Hopper said this was because “…people are allergic to change, you have to go out and sell the idea.”

Between 1955 and 1959 at Remington Rand, Grace Hopper worked on the Flow-Matic after finding that business people were uncomfortable with the mathematical notation required for data processing at the time. Her response was to create Flow-Matic, a programming language that allowed data processing with English keywords. The programming language was the first to use English-like statements, the first to separate the description of data from operations on it. Flow-Matic was the precursor to COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language), a language still used today (for better or worse) and the most ubiquitous language to date.


After reading numerous biographies and articles about the incredible accomplishments of the woman nicknamed “Amazing Grace”, I was really struck by Grace Hopper’s remarks that her greatest contribution had been “all the young people she had taught”. She was brilliant, passionate, talented and driven, and she was keenly aware of the need to educate as many people as possible so that innovative thoughts and ideas could spread like wildfire. There is a reason the annual celebration of women in computing and currently the largest gathering of women in computing to date (2014’s Grace Hopper Celebration saw over 8000 attendees) is named in her honor. She is an inspiration not only to women in computer science, but to anyone passionate about science and engineering, to anyone who dares to try new things in spite of opposition and doubt.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s