One of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, Grace Brewster Murray Hopper was an American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral. Pioneer of computer programming, Hopper created one of the first compiler related engine. She was the one who popularized the concept of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development to the development of COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), an early high-level programming language still in use today.
Grace was born in New York City. Her parents were of Scottish and Dutch descent, and great-grandfather Alexander Wilson Russell, an admiral in the US Navy, fought in the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War. Very curious as a child, once she decided to figure out how an alarm clock worked and dismantled seven alarm clocks before her mother realized what she was doing. In 1928 Hopper graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics, and earned her master’s degree at Yale University in 1930. After obtaining a Ph.D. in mathematics, also from Yale, in 1934, she had her dissertation, New Types of Irreducibility Criteria, published. Grace began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931, and was promoted to associate professor in 1941.
Following in her great-grandfather footsteps, at 34 she tried to enlist in the Navy early in World War II, but was rejected for multiple reasons, one of them being her age. During the war in 1943, Hopper obtained a leave of absence from Vassar and was sworn into the United States Navy Reserve. Reported in December and trained at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, Grace graduated first of her class in 1944. Assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University as a lieutenant, junior grade, she served on the Mark I computer programming staff, headed by Howard H. Aiken. Hopper and Aiken co-authored three papers on the Mark I, also known as Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator.
Remaining at the Harvard Computation Lab until 1949, Hopper turned down a full professorship at Vassar in favor of working as a research associate under a Navy contract at Harvard. In 1949, Hopper became an employee of the Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation as a senior mathematician and joined the team developing the UNIVAC I. In 1952, she published her first paper on the development of a new programming language that would use entirely English words.
She later said that at the time nobody believed in her idea, and went on to say that her compiler “translated mathematical notation into machine code. Manipulating symbols was fine for mathematicians but it was no good for data processors who were not symbol manipulators. Very few people are really symbol manipulators. If they are, they become professional mathematicians, not data processors. 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. I could say “Subtract income tax from pay” instead of trying to write that in octal code or using all kinds of symbols. COBOL is the major language used today in data processing.”.
Retired from the Naval Reserve with the rank of admiral at age 79 in 1986, during her 42+ years of service Hopper had received multiple awards, such as Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal with two Hourglass Devices, Naval Reserve Medal. She was also posthumously awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
At the time when women were still fighting for parity in many fields, she stood up for her beliefs and dreams, and as the result, managed to developed something that is of great importance to the computer science even today. Grace Hopper is a woman who dared to dream, and an example and inspiration for all women who want to follow in her footsteps into computer programming.