By Jaime Seltzer
“A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.”
When Grace Hopper was seven, she confounded the family by taking apart every clock in the house. Her mother, Mary Campbell Van Horne Murray, sympathized. She had once been an aspiring mathematician herself, but was blocked from higher-order mathematics, which were deemed unladylike in her day. Therefore, rather than punish her, Mary limited little Grace to “one clock at a time”! Grace’s father, Walter Fletcher Murray, also encouraged Grace and her younger sister Mary in scholastics with the same attention he gave to their brother.
Grace attended private schools for girls growing up, and finished high school at age sixteen. She applied to Vassar, which had an entrance exam, and flunked the Latin portion. Her parents, in true supportive fashion, assured her she was simply too young to go, and to try again next year. Grace began attending Vassar at age seventeen, where she studied mathematics and physics, and earned her PhD in mathematics from Yale. After that, Grace returned to Vassar to teach.
When the second World War broke out, Grace was determined to do something to help her country. She decided she would join the Navy. She was a slender math teacher – five foot seven, and barely topping a hundred pounds – and she was in her mid-thirties! She was the absolute picture of everything the military shouldn’t want. Yet very little could deter Grace when she set her mind to something. Though Grace didn’t pass the physical, she managed to gain an exemption, and was admitted to WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1943.
When Grace was finally admitted to the Navy, she was ordered to Harvard to work on the Mark 1, one of the first-ever computers. Grace’s immediate supervisor, Commander Howard Aiken, greeted her with, ‘where have you been?’ as though he’d been waiting for Grace for impatient hours. He then explained to Grace what the Mark 1 was, because neither she nor most of the other people on the planet had ever seen a computer, before.
For Grace, with her clockmaker’s mind, it was love at first sight – though she wasn’t in love with ‘the parts you could kick’ but what it was that made the computer tick: the programming, which ran through the huge, fifty-one-foot machine on paper tape.
Aiken was somewhat shocked to find that this fragile-looking young woman had been assigned as his second in command, but Grace soon won him over – and anyone else who came in range of her near-instant expertise, charm, and razor-sharp sense of humor.
Aiken’s and Hopper’s team kept the Mark 1 running twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, though once, it notably broke down and refused to finish calculating. Grace and her team searched all fifty-one feet of her looking for the problem. Finally, Grace found that there was a huge, live moth stuck in the works. Grace coined the term ‘debugging’ to describe how they had removed the still-living creature from the works, and ever-after, a computer glitch was known as a ‘bug’.
One of the most important calculations the Mark 1 solved in Grace’s time at Harvard were calculations for John Von Neumann, who was working on the Manhattan Project. The math was to calculate where to apply pressure on the outside of a sphere (a bomb casing) in order to make it collapse on itself, and took three full months of calculation. Grace and her team only learned what the calculations were meant to do, later on.
After the war, the expectation was that women would happily return to hearth, home and family. Not Grace! She was absorbed by the world of programming, which she loved. She worked briefly in the private sector, helping to create the UNIVAC I, one of the first commercial computers in the United States.
Grace’s background as a mathematics instructor informed her perspective that some people did not like or understand symbols, and would find programming too technical and daunting. She began to work on creating a more literal programming language that required if-then logical thinking rather than zeroes and ones. She called her new computer language COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), a programming language that is still in use today.
It’s important to note that in the 1950s, computers were used for mathematics only. The idea that a computer could be programmed to do more than play with numbers seemed fantastical. Yet the compilers Grace used could translate a far broader range of instructions than just math into the ones and zeroes that the computer could translate into action.
Despite her success as a business consultant, Grace returned to the Navy the moment it once more welcomed women in the 1960s. She rose through the ranks until she was promoted to Commodore, now known as Rear Admiral. Throughout her career, her wit and charm smoothed her way: she was known for having a clock in her office in which the numbers were backwards, to keep herself and anyone who visited her on their toes. She kept a pirate flag in her office as well, as she would seriously sneak off into the Pentagon to ‘appropriate’ any materials she needed, coining the phrase, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” She was something like the unofficial Navy spokesperson, going on late-night talk shows to discuss computers to a public who was still learning what a computer was and could do.
By the time she retired at age 80, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the Navy.
She won numerous awards and taught hundreds if not thousands of young people about computers. Today, the yearly Grace Hopper Celebration, in which women in computing meet, socialize, and learn from one another commemorates her remarkable life.
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