1983: Grace Hopper on the Window Sill


This is the 2nd in a short series of articles around my 4-decade+ career in software development — for your amusement, edification, and to capture a bit of computing history. They also bring back some memories for me, fond and otherwise.

Shortly after starting my undergraduate program at the University of Maryland, I got a job at their Central Administration offices as a student programmer. The Wilson H. Elkins building, slightly off-campus on Metzerott Road, College Park, Maryland, was but three years old when I began my career in it. It now houses the offices of the University System of Maryland.

Grace Hopper at the UNIVAC, c. 1960. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

I remember loving the building and its design. It featured a sizeable, handsome atrium populated with ample greenery, partially naturally lit by a series of larger windows. Lunch was served here; I was around the corner tucked into a tiny “office” that once had housed either coats or vending machines. To keep the small room warm, presumably, they stuffed a total of three student programmers into it; I sat shoulder to shoulder with a big guy named Chris Campanelli.

One day at lunchtime, dressed in the prevailing 1983 (1984?) fashion (jeans & t-shirt), Chris and I wandered past the atrium where a bunch of well-dressed folks were listening to someone speak. Only it wasn’t just someone, it was computing pioneer Captain Grace Hopper, soon to be Rear Admiral Hopper. I’d remembered seeing her on 60 Minutes.

Among other things, Hopper created the first linker; helped designed one of the first high-level programming languages (COBOL); and helped popularize the use of the word “bug” in the context of computing. A Wikipedia article adds a few more stories about her.

At the time, Hopper was known for giving an entertaining speech on modern computing. Her talks included a discussion of how far electricity (light) travels in a nanosecond (about 3/10 of a meter, or 11.8"), so as to help her and us relate to just what a billion of something was, or a billionth. After her talks, she would give out “nanoseconds” — each a thin piece of wire snipped to nanosecond length. Sadly I lost mine somewhere across the years.

Chris and I tiptoed over to the windows at the back of the atrium, sat on one of the wide window sills, and listened to the last ten minutes of the talk. When Hopper finished, she greeted a couple people as she came off the stage… then made a beeline to the back where Chris and I sat. She must have spotted us invading her talk. I felt pathetically under-dressed.

“You boys are programmers, yes?”
“Uh, yes ma’am.” The jeans and t-shirt must have given us away.

Hopper seemed happy to have a break from the suits in the room and chat with us. The 75-plus-year-old Captain sat down on the window sill next to us and asked about what we were working on (and yes! there was some COBOL involved). She gave us her skinny on what she believed to be the next big thing — the Zenith HeathKit computer (I think she meant the Z89). Ah well, even the greatest minds in history haven’t been great at predicting the future.

After a few minutes, Hopper’s handlers informed her that it was time to go, and whisked her away to her waiting limousine. We thanked her for coming.

Forty years later, Hopper is still the coolest person I’ve ever talked with (even cooler than John Waters). I was ecstatic that she chose to seek out us geeks in the back of the room and talk shop. More importantly, I think it’s when I first recognized that I wanted to eventually make some sort of mark on the career that I’d chosen.

Here’s the short 60 Minutes segment I’d seen, well worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LR6NPpFxw4

Hopper was smart, funny, and indeed prescient — she knew that we were still in the infancy of what was to come. “We ain’t seen nothing yet.”



Jeff Langr / Langr Software Solutions

40+ years developing. Wrote Modern C++ Programming w/ TDD; Agile Java; Agile in a Flash; Prag Unit Testing in Java; some of Clean Code.