Female Badasses in History: Grace Hopper (1906-1992)
Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was a United States Navy officer and pioneer of the computer. Her work helped make computers what they are today because her work was crucial in developing the first non-machine dependent programming language and the first compiler, i.e. a device transforms source code into another computer language such as binary. Also, she is credited with coining the term de-bugging.
Born Grace Brewster Murray in New York in 1906, Grace is said to always have been a very curious child for example dismantling an alarm clock to see how it works. She earned her undergrad degree in mathematics at Vassar College in 1928 and went on to earn her Master’s degree and her PhD in mathematics at Yale where she graduated in 1934 with her dissertation »New Types of Irreducibility Criteria«.
In 1943 Grace Hopper left her position as an associate professor at Vassar College to join the »Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service« (WAVES), a Naval Reserve organization that allowed women to serve in the US Navy. Because of her mathematics degree Grace was soon assigned to work with the Navy’s early computers, at that time huge machines designed mainly to decipher code. Her talent in this matter was so apparent that after the war ended and her service was up, she was practically begged to continue to work for the Navy. Grace liked the idea because it gave her the opportunity to work with what was at the time cutting-edge science and so she signed on as a Navy research fellow in Harvard in 1949.
In her position as a Navy research fellow Grace Hopper started working as a Navy technical consultant for the company that developed the UNIVAC I, the first commercial computer developed in the United States. This is where she invented and developed the first ever compiler. In 1953 she completed the first operational compiler. Compilers transform source code into another computer language, which is the basis for all executable programs – basically all software. In an interview with the Yale University paper in 1987 she said: “Nobody believed that, I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. They told me computers could only do arithmetic.”
She quickly rose in the ranks and became company’s first director of automatic programming, a position in which she worked on developing some of the world’s first compiler based computer languages.
She also rose in the ranks of the Navy: After her work as a consultant was finished she served as the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group in the Navy’s Office of Information Systems Planning from 1967 to 1977 and was promoted to the rank of captain in 1973. During this time period she strongly advocated writing programming languages in a way closely related to English and to replace central computers that filled whole rooms with networks of small distributed – one could almost say personalized – computers.
Initially set to retire in 1966 she was brought back by the Navy for an assignment of indefinite time. In 1983 the importance of work was demonstrated by a Presidential appointment to the rank of Rear Admiral. She completely retired in 1986 as the oldest active commissioned officer in the history of the Navy at age 79. She spent the rest of her life acting as a good-will ambassador for the Digital Equipment Corporation lecturing about her work and early computers. She died in 1992 at age 85.
Today Grace Hopper can be remembered as one of the most important computer pioneers. Her work really is part of the basis for all computer software we use today. Today a Navy destroyed is named after her to commemorate and honor her memory and accomplishments.