Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Grace Hopper, American Computer Scientist & U.S. Navy Rear Admiral

With more than 30,000 attendees from at least 90 countries, the Grace Hopper Celebration is one of the largest conferences for women in technology. Arguably more noteworthy is the purpose of the celebration: to honor the legacy of Grace Hopper.

Grace Brewster Murray Hopper was born on December 9, 1906, in New York City, New York to Walter Fletcher Murray and Mary Campbell Van Horne. Grace grew up as the oldest of three in a well-educated and financially-stable household. Her father graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University in 1894 and owned an insurance company. On the other hand, her mother, tantamount to Hopper herself, had a great love for mathematics.

Hopper was educated in private schools during her childhood, attending Graham School and Schoonmakers School in New York City as a young girl. Later, she attended Vassar College, graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in mathematics and physics in 1928, and began teaching at Vassar College thereafter. Concurrently, she studied mathematics at Yale University, receiving her Master’s degree in 1930 and her Ph.D. in 1934. Hopper was one of four women in a doctoral program of 10 students and the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics at Yale University. In a time when women were the minority in higher education, Hopper shattered these stereotypes as she pursued her education and career in mathematics and computing.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ consequential entry into World War II, Hopper hoped to assist her country by joining the military. She faced numerous immediate challenges. First, she was 34 years old by the time America had joined the war and considered far too old to enlist in the military. Additionally, the government classified her job as essential, thus further discouraging her from enlisting and explaining that she could best contribute to the war effort by remaining a mathematics professor. Lastly, with a weight of 105 pounds and a height of five-feet six-inches, Hopper was 16 pounds underweight; however, she convinced the Navy to waive the weight requirement. In December of 1943, Hopper was sworn into the U.S. Navy Reserve through her perseverance and adamance. She attended the U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School in Northampton, Massachusetts and started her military career at the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard upon graduation.

During her time at Harvard, Hopper worked with her fellow officers in making classified calculations crucial to the military. One of these projects, in fact, contributed to the development of the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. Later, Hopper turned down a full professorship at Vassar College in order to become a research fellow in engineering sciences and applied physics at Harvard. In 1944, Hopper learned to program the first large-scale digital computer, Mark I, at Harvard. When Hopper found a moth in Mark I’s circuits, she coined the term “bug” to describe computer failures and the term “debugging” for fixing “bugs”. In addition to her work in the military, Hopper, as an employee of the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, also contributed to the construction of the Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC), one of the first commercial computers, in the early 1950s. In 1957, she worked to develop Flow-Matic, the first English-language data-processing compiler. In the 1960s, Hopper contributed to the creation of the Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL), one of the first widely-used programming languages, especially in the business sector, for the Navy. When 79-year-old Hopper retired in 1986, she was the oldest officer in the Navy, a stark demonstration of her dedication and passion for her work.

Hopper passed away due to natural causes on January 1, 1992 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia with full military honors. Needless to say, Hopper left behind a profound and unforgettable legacy, ranging from her invention of COBOL to her coining of the terms “bug” and “debugging”. In short, through her many significant contributions, including her creation of the first computer compiler, Hopper laid the foundation for the future of computer science.

Even after her death, Hopper was recognized for her work in the military and the field of computer science. A naval ship commissioned in 1997 was named USS Hopper in her honor. Furthermore, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, posthumously in 2016. More prominently, the Grace Hopper Celebration, an annual conference for women in technology founded in 1994, celebrates the accomplishments of Grace Hopper, as indicated by the conference’s namesake, along with other women in STEAM.

A firm advocate for change, Hopper once asserted, “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, “We’ve always done it this way.” I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counterclockwise.” Indeed, Hopper has defied social norms and standards from the beginning. From her career as a mathematics professor to her remarkable success in the U.S. Navy, a heavily male-dominated field, Hopper has proved time and again that an individual is not limited by anything or anyone — least of all society.

by Yale Han


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