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  • Writer's pictureSofia Ng

Strong Women: Grace Hopper

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Few figures have left as significant an impact as Grace Hopper. A brilliant mathematician, a pioneering computer scientist, and a trailblazer for women in technology, Hopper's contributions laid the foundation for modern computer programming. From coining the term "bug" to developing one of the world's first high-level programming languages, her journey is a testament to perseverance, innovation, and a relentless passion for advancing technology.

Grace Brewster Murray Hopper was born on December 9, 1906, in New York City, USA. Raised in a family that valued education, Hopper's love for mathematics and problem-solving became evident early on. She earned her bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics from Vassar College in 1928, later obtaining her master's and doctoral degrees in mathematics from Yale University in 1930 and 1934, respectively.

In 1943, during World War II, Grace Hopper joined the United States Navy Reserve as part of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) program. Her mathematical expertise led her to work on the Harvard Mark I computer project, where she became one of the first programmers of this massive electromechanical computer.

It was during her work on the Mark I that Hopper encountered a glitch caused by a moth that had become trapped in the computer, impeding its operation. She famously coined the term "bug" to describe such glitches, and this term has since become an integral part of computing terminology.

In the 1950s, Hopper worked on the UNIVAC I computer, one of the first commercially available computers. Here, she became instrumental in developing the first compiler, known as A-0 (later known as the FLOW-MATIC language). This groundbreaking innovation allowed programmers to write code in English-like instructions, making it easier for humans to communicate with computers. This laid the groundwork for modern high-level programming languages.

Grace Hopper's most significant contribution to computer programming came in the form of COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language). Along with her team, she developed this high-level programming language, which was designed to be easily understood by business users and non-technical personnel. COBOL became a pivotal language for data processing and business applications, and its influence can still be felt in various industries today.

Throughout her remarkable career, Grace Hopper received numerous accolades and honors, including the National Medal of Technology and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, both awarded posthumously. After retiring from the Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral, she continued to work as a consultant and advocate for the widespread use of computers and programming languages.

Grace Hopper's pioneering work and innovative spirit have indelibly shaped the field of computer science. Her contributions, from coining the term "bug" to developing the COBOL programming language, have had a profound and lasting impact on the technology landscape. As a visionary and trailblazer for women in computing, Hopper's legacy continues to inspire generations of programmers and technologists to push the boundaries of what is possible. Her life's journey serves as a powerful reminder of the transformative power of innovation, determination, and a passion for making the world a better place through technology.

Fun Facts

Love for Clocks

Grace Hopper was known for carrying around a 30-centimeter long piece of wire, which she affectionately called the "nanosecond." This wire represented the maximum distance that electricity could travel in one billionth of a second. She used it during her lectures to visually demonstrate the concept of a nanosecond and how it relates to computing speed.

Oldest U.S. Navy Officer

Grace Hopper's remarkable career in the United States Navy spanned over four decades. She remained an active-duty officer until her retirement at the age of 79, making her the oldest serving officer in the Navy's history at that time.

Punch Card Collector

Hopper had a fascination with punch cards, the early data storage medium used in computing. She collected and saved the first program she wrote, which was a deck of punch cards for the UNIVAC I computer. Her punch card collection eventually grew to more than 450 decks, reflecting her passion for preserving the history of computing.

Inspirational Public Speaker

Grace Hopper was known for her engaging and enthusiastic speaking style. She was a captivating public speaker, and her lectures on computer programming and technology left a lasting impression on her audiences. She had a talent for simplifying complex concepts, making them accessible to a wide range of people.

Honorary Degrees

Throughout her life, Grace Hopper received numerous honorary degrees from various institutions, recognizing her significant contributions to the field of computer science. Interestingly, she often referred to these honorary degrees as "courtesy degrees" since she believed she did not need them to validate her expertise.

First Programmer of the Harvard Mark I

During her time working on the Harvard Mark I computer, Hopper became the first person to write a program for the machine. She wrote the program to perform complex mathematical calculations, paving the way for future programming endeavors.

Star of "60 Minutes"

Grace Hopper's groundbreaking work and charismatic personality made her a prominent figure in popular media. In 1983, she appeared on the television news program "60 Minutes," where she demonstrated her "nanosecond" wire and passionately spoke about the importance of computing in everyday life.

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