The Woman They Turned Away
This is The Story… of how one woman’s demons almost killed her. It’s how she faced a destroyer that would devour all… and lived to tell the tale. Along the way, she managed to create many of technologies that we use on a daily basis.
And now… onto The Story
She awoke with the worst hangover of her life.
As she blinked her eyes, the strange world around her came into focus. Her back ached from the bench she had been sleeping on. She must have blacked out last night. The concrete room was freezing, her head throbbed as she sat up. Strangers lay on the benches opposite to her, and beyond them, she looked out past the iron bars.
Damn it, she thought.
She had been arrested and thrown in the drunk tank. Again.
The concrete prison around her swayed back and forth. The fact that she was still drunk was keeping the worst of the hangover at bay. The rest of the day would be hell.
She wondered if this was the third or fourth time this had happened? It didn’t matter. She talked to the cell guards. They knew her by name. She called a friend. They bailed her out and tried to talk to her, but she brushed them off.
At home, she poured herself a coffee with a shot of whiskey. Outside her window, she watched the river. On good days, she stared at it for too long. On bad days, she thought about drowning herself. On one of the worst days, she had tried. But at the last moment before she let the water fill her lungs, something had stopped her. And in a burst of energy that came out of nowhere, she surfaced, sputtering and coughing for air. She drug herself up on the bank, cursing, and sobbing.
Snow began falling silently outside. She finished her coffee and poured another. Her friends, family, and colleagues all made their attempts to chastise her or to help, but they had no idea what was at stake. As she glared out the window at the river, she laughed to herself. They couldn’t even fathom the magnitude of what was happening in the world right now. Only a few of her colleagues could. And she could barely talk to them about it.
There had to be more people out there she thought. Those who understood what was going on, that although the war was “over” the real war was just beginning. This time nuclear weapons were on the table, along with God knows what other kinds of horrors the Reds were building.
It was the winter of 1949, and by some outward appearances, people thought she was successful. A handful of her colleagues considered her an eccentric genius. She was a military officer who just landed an executive role at a successful technology startup.
The truth was, she 43 years old, and her life was unraveling. The stresses of her work, the post traumatic stress from the war, and her knowledge of the kind of risks that her young country faced were overwhelming. The demons in her mind haunted her, and she had become an alcoholic. Some weekends she would end up in jail, and some nights she would get blackout drunk at home.
Today, it was noon, and the open whiskey bottle was within arms reach. Suicidal thoughts remerged, and she shuddered as she looked out at the river in the snow. The water was cold enough to make the end come quickly.
Thirty-six years before, she was a seven-year-old girl, staring at her alarm clock.
“Hmm.. how do you work?” she wondered.
She looked over the alarm clock, and the question wouldn’t go away.
So she decided to answer it. Sneaking into the kitchen, she grabbed a screwdriver and disassembled it. Then another… and another.
Soon her family’s home in New York City brimmed with disassembled and partially assembled machines.
Her mother was unimpressed with the mess, but the little girl wanted to understand machinery. Like the gears in the clocks she loved, the gears in her mind were already spinning.
That hunger for knowledge helped speed her through school. Her quest for answers lead her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Physics at Vassar College. To further speed up her learning, she taught classes as an assistant professor. After she graduated, her hunger for knowledge still wasn’t satisfied, so she earned her Ph.D. in Mathematics from Yale.
But having knowledge was not enough for her. She wanted to share what she had learned. She wanted to improve other lives. But where should she focus?
First, she looked at her own family history. Her great-grandfather had been an Admiral in the US Navy during the Civil War, and the idea was appealing to her. Somewhere out there, someone needed her talents — she was sure of it. The call to adventure was beckoning.
The newly minted Ph.D. received an offer to teach math at Vassar College. She accepted, the money was good, and she got to spend her time reading and doing applied mathematics. Life was good.
Unbeknownst to her, the greatest challenge of her entire generation was approaching. She had no idea what was coming, and neither did the rest of America.
When Pearl Harbor struck, the woman was floored.
Soon the news was filled with terror. The axis powers continued to invade sovereign nations. Great Britain declared war. Soon America came to her aid.
Suddenly, great American minds were in the highest demand. The future of the free world hung in the balance.
Military recruiting messages filled the airwaves and papers. The young doctor of mathematics saw them and answered the call. Hundreds of men she knew signed up one day, and were gone the next, and she knew she had to help.
Her marriage had recently failed, and the tales she heard about Pearl Harbor were tormenting her. She needed to act now. She tried to enlist in the Navy, expecting an instant approval. Instead, she got a “NO”. The worst part was, the “no” was based on everything about herself that she couldn’t change. They said that at 5'6" she was too short. At 105 pounds, she was too underweight. And although she had invested in her education and learning, they told her she was too old to enlist at 37 years old. They asked what was she thinking? She was nearly two decades older than most new recruits!
But one reason they told her “no” irritated her more than any other.
They told her she was overqualified. The recruiters suggested that she go back to her safe teaching job at Vassar. Students and soldiers needed to learn mathematics, and somebody needed to teach them.
She listened to it all politely, but decided that all the no’s were just the starting point of the negotiation.
So, she kept trying to join the Navy.
Finally, she caught a break and The US Navy Reserves accepted her. Vassar College reluctantly granted her a leave of absence from teaching. She was still 15 pounds underweight, and had to sign a waiver, but she was in. With her right hand raised, she swore into the US Navy Reserve.
Her Navy basic training was thrilling. She was out in the real world, and preparing to face one of the most evil and depraved enemies humanity had ever faced.
In training, she applied the passion that got her past all the no’s. It worked, and in June 1944, she graduated at the top of her class. Her duty station was the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University.
There, she met her mentor, a computer scientist named Howard Aiken. The man was gifted and instantly recognized that the woman in front of him was too. The two bonded while working on Aiken’s Mark I computer. The Mark I was a 51-foot-long, electromechanical machine.
It was an engineering miracle of its time. The Mark I would take calculations that used to take months, and finish them in hours.
The woman and the other operators watched, guarded, and cared for the machine around the clock. At night, they would fall asleep by the machine, ready to wake up at a moment’s notice to fix its problems.
Resources were scarce, and they did everything they could to keep the machine running 24 hours a day, even if it meant siphoning resources from other parts of campus. One evening, Aiken caught the woman and another employee removing an entire carton of graph paper from an Army supply room on campus. She recalls him saying, “‘Well you better leave one pack. The Army may not be able to count, but they can tell the difference between none and some.’”
Soon, the woman and Aiken were pushing the Mark I to its limits. They co-authored three papers on the Mark I and created entirely new ways to utilize it. She hoped this would be enough to take her from the Navy Reserves to the full-time Navy. When she applied again, she got a “no”. She was 38, and now she was far too old based on the rules.
At that same time, Vassar College made her an offer for a full-time, professorship. It was tempting. To the shock of her family and friends, she turned the offer down. She stayed in the reserves and continued to work at the Harvard Computation Lab for the next six years. She would be the first to coin the phrase “computer bug” after discovering that a moth had flown into their machine and was causing it to malfunction.
Although she knew how important her work was with solving critical military problems, she had discovered how her work was used. It was used in the atomic bomb explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The knowledge of her part in it was overwhelming, something that she couldn’t face sober.
A few times, she would find herself in jail from being drunk in public, waiting to be bailed out by her coworkers and friends.
Her ability to face the truth about how her work was used had led her directly to the moment in her kitchen, the snow falling outside, while she stared outside at the river where she tried to drown herself.
As she looked out the window, tears streamed down her face. She wasn’t going to let the lure of an easy out distract her any longer. She grabbed the whiskey bottle and dumped it down the sink. In a daze, she stumbled over to the cabinet and dumped the bottle of vodka down the sink. That was the last of it.
She thought about all her journals and notes scattered around the old house she rented. They contained page after page of ideas, inventions, and designs for new kinds of computers and systems. Maybe those weren’t hallucinations, she thought. She went to bed early that night. That was one of the last days she ever drank.
Soon after, the war ended, and so did her contract with Harvard Lab. It was a relief. She was free from working on the machines of death. Now, she could work on the machines of creation.
She was onto the next opportunity. Two pioneers of computing named Presper Eckert and John Mauchly were doing the unthinkable. They were starting a company and they wanted her to join them. The little startup soon became Remington Rand. The woman became the Senior Mathematician on the team developing a new kind of computer called the UNIVAC I.
It only took a few months until she became the director of the entire project. She developed the project into a salable product. When they launched the UNIVAC I in 1950, it was the first large-scale computer on the market.
But first doesn’t always mean best. The machine was riddled with problems, and the woman wasn’t going to stand for it. She would not allow a machine to dictate to her what it would and would not do. She would create a way to command it.
But before she could command it, she first had to learn how to speak to it. And that required an entirely new programming language. Up until this point, most of programming was done with numbers. She wanted to command the machine with letters and language.
Everyone around her brushed the ideas aside. People told her it was impossible. But like every experience that came before, she knew that “no” was just the starting point.
She decided that machines could take language commands, and she was going to make them. For three years, she tinkered, at every step she heard about how she was foolish for wasting her time. Lucky for us, she kept going.
The first breakthrough was a paper she wrote. In it, she proposed the culmination of her research, a “compiler,” program. This compiler program would convert English into machine code.
Now, by presenting her ideas in a paper with proofs, people took notice. Soon she had a team working for her, and they helped make her vision a reality. Their new program was aptly named “A Compiler”.
The “A Compiler” was a breakthrough. It took human language and converted it into machine code. Now, humans could command machines like never before. Later, she would look back on it and say that:
“It’s much easier for most people to write an English statement than it is to use symbols. So, I decided data processors ought to be able to write their programs in English, and the computers would translate them into machine code.”
That was the beginning of COBOL, a computer language for data processors.
If you haven’t heard of COBOL before, you probably see it every day, as it still runs 95% of ATMs.
As she went, she became obsessed with automating every manual process she could. Many people in her industry warned her she would make their industry obsolete. But she knew that automating the grunt work was essential to rising to new, better, and bolder challenges.
A few decades later, in the 1970s, she began pressuring those she knew at the Defense Department. They needed to start innovating, and fast. At the time, they were reliant on one massive computing system. She politely informed them of the dangers and proposed a simple approach. They needed a system of small, distributed computers. With this in place, every person in the department could be granted access to a single repository of information.
All along the way, she kept serving in the Navy Reserves. Several times she was forced into retirement because of her age. But because of her competence, skills, and imagination, the Navy always tried to recall her back to active duty. She retired as a Commander at age 60 and 64. Then she got called back and promoted to Captain at age 65. Then they tried to push her out, so she went and got special approval from Congress to remain on duty after mandatory retirement.
That woman that was the definition of perseverance was Grace Hopper.
In 1985, at nearly 80 years old, Grace Hopper became one of the Navy’s first female Admirals. She had risen to the highest ranks of the same organization that first said she was too small and too old.
Her great-grandfather had done it, and now she had too. Moreover, she left a string of inventions, papers, students, and successful computer companies in her wake.
But she still wasn’t done. And she still wouldn’t retire.
During the last five years of her life, Hopper continued to consult with major corporations. Each time she was hired, she insisted on going through the same formal interview process as everyone else.
As she traveled the United States, wearing her official Navy dress, she handed out this valuable piece of wisdom:
“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ’em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ’em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.”
Grace Hopper’s life is a testament to curiosity, and a fierce determination to create value in the world.
It all started as a child when she looked at that clock and wondered,
“How does this work?”
As a girl, she sought to answer that question.
As an adult in her forties she would summon the courage to keep going by asking another question…
“What if I cared for myself better and kept going?”
Grace Hopper answered both questions in the affirmative. Although she held one of the highest ranks in the Navy, she had the spirit of a pirate. It’s that union of opposites that’s required to become an original. She ushered in a new age of computing, programming, and opportunity for millions of people all around the world.
What if we all dared to ask, “How does this work?” What if, no matter what personal struggles we’re facing, we summoned the courage to care for ourselves better and keep going?
That’s her story, what’s yours going to be?
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