By Merry Maisel, San Diego Supercomputer Center
Most of us remember seeing Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper on television. We recall a charming, tiny, white-haired lady in a Navy uniform with a lot of braid, admonishing a class of young Naval officers to remember their nanoseconds. The “nanoseconds” she handed out were lengths of wire, cut to not quite 12 inches in length, equal to the distance traveled by electromagnetic waves along the wire in the space of a nanosecond–one billionth of a second. In teaching efficient programming methods, Rear Admiral Hopper wanted to make sure her students would not waste nanoseconds. Occasionally, to make the demonstration even more powerful, she would bring to class an entire “microsecond”–a coil of wire nearly 1,000 feet long that the rear admiral, herself tough and wiry, would brandish with a sweeping gesture and a steady wrist.
The vividness of our impression of Hopper as a great teacher derives from these images. But, as computer pioneer Howard Bromberg has written, Hopper was much more. She was a “mathematician, computer scientist, social scientist, corporate politician, marketing whiz, systems designer, and programmer,” and, always, a “visionary.” After graduating from Vassar with a degree in mathematics in 1928, Grace Brewster Murray worked under algebraist Oystein Ore at Yale for her Ph.D. (1934). She married Vincent Foster Hopper, an educator, in 1930, and began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931.
The Murrays were a family with a long military tradition; Grace Hopper’s ancestors had served in the American Revolutionary War. Thus it surprised no one when she resigned her Vassar post to join the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) in 1943. Commissioned as a lieutenant, she reported in 1944 to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University. She was the third person to join the research team of Professor (and Naval Reserve lieutenant) Howard H. Aiken, who had requested her months earlier and greeted her with the words, “Where the hell have you been?” Then he pointed to the Mark I electromechanical computing machine: “There’s the machine. Compute the coefficients of the arc tangent series by next Thursday.” Hopper plunged in and learned what the machine could do with a clever mathematician at the helm. By the end of World War II in 1945, she was working on the Mark II. Although her marriage was dissolved at this point, and though she had no children, she did not resume her maiden name. She was appointed to the Harvard faculty as a research fellow, and in 1949 she joined the newly formed Eckert-Mauchly Corporation, founded by the builders of ENIAC, one of the first electronic digital computers.
She never again held only one job at a time. She went back and forth among institutions in the military, private industry, business, and academy, and in all these places she was regarded as one of the most incisive strategic “futurists” in the world of computing. Hopper remained associated with Eckert-Mauchly and its successors (Remington-Rand, Sperry-Rand, and Univac) until her official “retirement” in 1971. Her best-known contribution to computing during this period was the invention, in 1953, of the compiler, the intermediate program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer. She did this, she said, because she was “lazy” and hoped that “the programmer may return to being a mathematician.”
Her work on compilers and on making machines understand ordinary language instructions led ultimately to the development of the business language COBOL. Hopper’s work also foreshadowed or embodied enormous numbers of developments that are still the very bones of digital computing: subroutines, formula translation, relative addressing, the linking loader, code optimization, and symbolic manipulation. At her death, she was an active consultant for Digital.
She was briefly retired from the Naval Reserve in 1966, but was called to active duty the next year to take charge of the Navy’s standardization of COBOL and other languages. In December 1983, she was promoted to the rank of commodore in a White House ceremony. The rank was merged with that of rear admiral two years later, so she became Rear Admiral Hopper. Throughout her life, it was her service to her country of which she was most proud. She died on New Year’s Day in 1992 and, appropriately, was buried with full Naval honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
We are here to celebrate the achievements of women in computing and to pledge ourselves to extend them. In computing more than other disciplines, women in the right place at the right time have made an enormous difference. If computing has led the way in making space for women’s participation on an equal basis, it is because the discipline was pioneered in large part by women like Grace Murray Hopper. What was true for Hopper is all the more true for women today because of her work.