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Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper (January 1984)
Grace Hopper (January 1984)
Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (December 9, 1906 - January 1, 1992) was an early computer pioneer. She was the first programmer for the Mark I Calculator and the developer of the first compiler for a computer programming language.

Hopper was born Grace Brewster Murray. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College with a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics in 1928 and pursued her graduate education at Yale University, where she received an MA degree in the same two subjects in 1930 and in 1934 became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. Her dissertation was on New Types of Irreducibility Criteria. Hopper began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931; by 1941 she was an associate professor.

In 1943 she joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and was assigned to work with Howard Aiken on the Mark I Calculator. She was the first person to write a program for it. At the end of the war she was discharged from the Navy, but she continued to work on the development of the Mark II and the Mark III Calculators.

In 1949, Hopper became an employee of the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and joined the team developing the UNIVAC I. In the early 1950s the company was taken over by the Remington Rand corporation and it was while she was working for them that her original compiler work was done. The compiler was known as the A compiler and its first version was A-0. Later versions were released commercially as the ARITH-MATIC, MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC compilers.

She later returned to the Navy where she worked on validation software for the programming language COBOL and its compiler. COBOL was defined by the CODASYL committee which extended her FLOW-MATIC language with some ideas from the IBM equivalent, the COMTRAN. However, it was her idea that programs could be written in a language that was close to English rather than in machine code or in languages close to machine code, such as the assemblers of the time. It is fair to say that COBOL was based very much on her philosophy.

Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve with the rank of Commander at the end of 1966. She was recalled to active duty in August of 1967 for a six-month period that turned into an indefinite assignment. She was promoted to Captain in 1973 by Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr.. After Rep. Philip Crane saw her on a March 1983 segment of 60 Minutes, he championed a joint resolution in the House of Representatives which led to her promotion to Commodore by special Presidential appointment. By 1985 she became a rear admiral. She retired (involuntarily) from the Navy in 1986; she was then hired as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation, a position she retained until her death in 1992.

She was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.



Photo of first computer bug.
Photo of first computer bug.

Throughout much of her later career, Grace Hopper was much in demand as a speaker at various computer-related events. She was well-known for her lively and irreverent speaking style, as well as a rich treasury of early "war stories".

  • While working with associates on a Mark II computer at Harvard University, she discovered a moth stuck in a relay and thereby impeding operation, whereupon she remarked that they were "debugging" the system. Though the term computer bug cannot be definitively attributed to Admiral Hopper, she did bring the term into popularity. The remains of the moth can be found in the group's log book at the Naval Surface Weapons Center .
  • Grace Hopper is famous for her nanoseconds visual aid. People (such as generals and admirals) used to ask her why satellite communication took so long. She started handing out pieces of wire which were under one foot long, which is the distance that light travels in one nanosecond. Later she used the same pieces of wire to illustrate why computers had to be small to be fast. At many of her talks, she handed out nanoseconds to everyone in the audience, contrasting them with a coil of wire nearly a thousand feet long, representing a microsecond.

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about Grace Hopper

Obituary notices by

  • Betts, Mitch (Computerworld 26: 14, 1992)
  • Bromberg, Howard (IEEE Software 9: 1-3-104, 1992)
  • Danca, Richard A. (Federal Computing Week 6: 26-27, 1992)
  • Hancock, Bill (Digital Review 9: 40, 1992)
  • Power, Kevin (Government Computer News 11: 70, 1992)
  • Sammet, Jean E. (Communications of the ACM 35: 128-132, 1992)
  • Weiss, Eric A. (IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 14: 56-58, 1992)

External links

  • Biography and Images from the U.S. Navy Naval Historical Center
  • Grace Hopper links from Chips, the U.S. Navy information technology magazine
  • Full Hopper biography with many links
  • A shorter Hopper biography
  • Biography and Wit and Wisdom from a Yale website
  • USS Hopper website , which includes a biography of Hopper
  • Grace Murray Hopper Award
  • The Government Technology Leadership Awards: The Gracies
  • another bio

Last updated: 02-07-2005 10:41:16
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55