If she didn’t invent the computer revolution in the United States, Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper gave it a voice – and a language in which to communicate.
“Amazing Grace” Hopper (1906-1992) played a pivotal role in developing COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) and creating FLOW-MATIC (the first data processing language to use English).
She promoted computer standardization for the Navy with the Air Force and eventually throughout DoD. A lifelong inventor who preached common sense, she considered herself a discoverer rather than an inventor, according to Kathleen Broome Williams, author of Grace Hopper – Admiral of the Cyber Sea, recommended by the Navy Professional Reading Program.
Always unconventional in her thinking, Hopper scorned the customary and traditional, was impatient with the status quo, and approached problem solving with instinctive innovation.
In 2011, and especially in August, there are some significant Grace Hopper milestones to remember:
Eighty years ago, 1931, Hopper began teaching at Vassar College.
Seventy years ago, 1941, she earned a faculty fellowship at Vassar. On Dec. 7, 1941, there were no women serving as commissioned officers in the Navy, but Hopper wanted to join the war effort. She became one of the early WAVES – Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service – during WWII and began working at Harvard on the Mark I computer (which was formally dedicated Aug. 7, 1944).
At the time, the few computers that existed in the world were the size of a room and were known as “computing machines.” The term “computer” was used for the women who operated the machines, entering data to generate calculations, according to Williams.
Sixty-five years ago, 1946, Hopper was promoted to lieutenant, recognized for her computer programming skills.
Sixty years ago, 1951, she began working on the world’s first compiler, completing it the following year. A compiler is a program or set of programs that transforms complex source code into a simpler code. Hopper’s invention or “discovery” was a fundamental contribution to the evolution of computing.
|Grace Hopper helped develop COBOL.|
Fifty years ago, in August 1961, Hopper was promoted and appointed director of research in systems and programming for the Remington Road division of Sperry Rand.
Forty-five years ago, 1966, as Hopper was about to turn 60, then-Cmdr. Hopper received a letter from the Chief of Naval Personnel, asking her to apply for a resignation from the Navy due to her age and length of service. When she then retired, Hopper called it, “the saddest day of my life.”
But, on August 1, 1967, the Navy recalled her from the Reserves to active duty. The computer age was accelerating.
|Thirty-five years ago, August 1976|
Forty years ago, in August 1971, 12,000 copies of Hopper’s manual, Fundamentals of COBOL, had been sold – 25 years after she’d worked on the Mark I.
Williams describes Hopper’s principal role working with the Air Force, Secretary of Defense and Government Services Administration to standardize computer language throughout federal agencies.
On August 2, 1973 Hopper was promoted to Captain.
She continued to be a teacher, mentor and recruiter for the Navy in the 70s and early-mid 80s. Then, 25 years ago, on Aug. 14, 1986, Grace Hopper retired a second time, at the rank of Rear Admiral. Her retirement was held aboard USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. She was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.
Twenty years ago, on Sept. 16, 1991, Grace Hopper was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the highest honor of its type in the United States. (Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are other recipients of the medal, now known as the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.) Williams reports what President George H. W. Bush said at the time, that it was Hopper who “pioneered the revolution that put personal computers on the desks of millions of Americans – and dragged even this president into the computer age.”
The voice of Navy’s computer revolution was silenced when Hopper passed away on New Year’s Day in 1992.
Fifteen years ago, during the summer of 1996, Sailors – men and women – began reporting aboard a new guided-missile destroyer bearing Hopper’s name. USS Hopper (DDG 70), “Amazing Grace,” was commissioned Sept. 6, 1997. The Arleigh Burke class destroyer, homeported at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hi, is equipped with state-of-the-art computerized systems.
Author Williams achieves both a history of the development of computing in the Navy and a look at the professional milestones of this dynamic woman whose voice continues to echo decades later.