December 9, 1906 – Grace Murray Hopper:
“It is better to beg forgiveness, than ask permission.”
Hopper was a computer scientist, plus a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy. A pioneer in the field, she was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer and she developed the first compiler for a computer programming language. She conceptualized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first modern programming languages with the enterprise operating systems. For her amazing accomplishments and her naval rank, she is sometimes referred to as “Amazing Grace.”
Born Grace Brewster Murray in New York City, Hopper studied math and physics at Vassar College. After graduating from Vassar in 1928, she proceeded to Yale University, where, in 1930, she received a Master’s Degree in Mathematics. Starting in 1931, Hopper began teaching at Vassar while also continuing to study at Yale, where she earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1934, becoming one of the first few woman to earn a degree in that subject.
Hopper continued to teach until World War II compelled her to join the U.S. Naval Reserve in December 1943. She opted for the Navy, because it had been her grandfather’s branch of service. She was commissioned as a lieutenant in June 1944. Given her background, Hopper was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, where she learned to program a Mark I computer.
After the war, Hopper remained with the Navy as a reserve officer. As a research fellow at Harvard, she worked with the Mark II and Mark III computers. She was at Harvard when a moth was found to have shorted out the Mark II, and is given credit for the invention of the term “computer bug”.
Wanting to continue to work with computers, Hopper moved into private industry in 1949, first with the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, then with Remington Rand, where she oversaw programming for the UNIVAC computer. In 1952, her team created the first compiler for computer languages (a compiler renders worded instructions into code that can be read by computers). This compiler was a precursor for the Common Business Oriented Language, or COBOL, a widely adapted language that would be used around the world. Though she did not invent COBOL, Hopper encouraged its adaptation.
Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve in 1966, but her pioneering computer work meant that she was recalled to active duty at 60 years old to tackle standardizing communication between different computer languages. She would remain with the Navy for 19 years. When she retired in 1986, at 79, she was a rear admiral as well as the oldest serving officer in the service.
Saying that she would be bored if she stopped working entirely, Hopper took another job post-retirement and stayed in the computer industry for several more years. She was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991 becoming the first female individual recipient of the honor.
Hopper left this plain of of existence on January 1, 1992. She now lives at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1997, the guided missile destroyer, USS Hopper, was commissioned by the Navy in San Francisco. In 2004, the University of Missouri has honored Hopper with a computer museum on their campus, dubbed “Grace’s Place”. On display there you can see early computers and computer components to educator visitors on the evolution of the technology.
In addition to her programming accomplishments, Hopper’s legacy includes encouraging young women to learn how to program. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women In Computing Conference is a technical conference that encourages women to become part of the world of computing, while the Association for Computing Machinery offers a Grace Murray Hopper Award. On her birthday in 2013, Hopper was remembered with a “Google Doodle”. In 2016, Hopper was posthumously honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.