• Project STEMinist

Wednesday's Women in STEM: Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was at the forefront of computer and programming language development from the 1930s through the 1980s. One of the crowning achievements of her 44-year career was the development of computer languages written in English, rather than mathematical notation — most notably, the common business computing language known as COBOL, which is still in use today. Hopper's legacy is still honored by the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference. Grace was educated at two private schools for girls, namely Graham School and Schoonmaker's School both in New York City. Intending to enter Vassar College in 1923 she failed a Latin examination and was required to wait another year. She spent the academic year at Hartridge School in Plainfield, New Jersey then entered Vassar College in 1924. She studied mathematics and physics at Vassar College graduating with a BA in 1928.

After graduating, she researched mathematics at Yale University. In 1930 Murray married Vincent Foster Hopper, an English teacher from New York University. A Vassar College Fellowship allowed her to study at Yale University and, also in 1930, Yale awarded her an MA.

In 1931, she began teaching mathematics at Vassar College as an instructor in the Department of Mathematics and she continued on the staff there until 1943, having been promoted by that time to an associate professorship. Hopper was awarded her doctorate by Yale University in 1934 for a thesis New Types of Irreducibility Criteria which was supervised by Øystein Ore. Hopper attended New York University as a Vassar Faculty Fellow in 1941.

Hopper wanted to join the military as soon as the United States entered World War II. However, at 34 she was too old, and not heavy enough for her height to enlist. But that did not stop Hopper from helping in the war. She became a mathematics professor; and considered essential to the war effort. However she was determined to join the Navy and, despite being told that she could serve her country best by remaining in her teaching post at Vassar College, she eventually persuaded the Naval Reserve to accept her in 1943 and she also persuaded Vassar College to grant her leave. After initial training at Midshipman's School, after which she was commissioned a Lieutenant, Hopper was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at the Cruft Laboratories at Harvard University. From 1944 she worked with Aiken on the Harvard Mark I computer.

By the end of the war, Hopper was working on the Harvard Mark II computer. It was in this machine that the first actual "computer bug" was found: a moth that shorted one of the 17 000 relays in the machine. In 1946 Hopper ended her active duty with the Navy but remained a duty reservist. She resigned from her post at Vassar College so that she could remain at Harvard where she was appointed a Research Fellow in Engineering Sciences and Applied Physics in the Computation Laboratory. She continued to work on the Mark II, then later on the Mark III computer.

In 1949, Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation as a Senior Mathematician and there she worked with John Eckert and John Mauchly on the UNIVAC computer. She designed an improved compiler while working for the company and was part of the team which developed Flow-Matic, the first English-language data-processing compiler. When Hopper retired from the Navy in August 1986, at 80 years of age, she was the oldest active-duty officer in the United States. She had reached the rank of Rear Admiral, being promoted to the rank of Commodore in a White House ceremony in December 1983, then becoming Rear Admiral Hopper in 1985.

At a celebration held in Boston on the US Constitution to celebrate her retirement, Hopper was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award possible by the Department of Defense. After a career that involved many jobs in numerous quite different areas, one might have expected her to look forward to a quiet retirement. However, this was not her style and, remarkably, she was appointed a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation after retiring from the Navy, a position she held until 1990.

Grace Hopper will always be remembered as a fierce and unforgettable naval officer as well as one of the first computer scientists in history and will always be a role model for young women all over the globe.

BY: Tauba Ashrafi


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