Before Gates and Jobs, There Was Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

December 04, 2013

This past weekend, full of pumpkin pie and enjoying a few days off, I watched one of my all-time favorite movies, Desk Set. Set in the 1950s, it features Katharine Hepburn as a librarian and Spencer Tracy as a representative from a computer company. Tracy is trying to install the new Emerac computer in Hepburn’s library to automate the library’s reference services. Fearing for their jobs and determined to show their worth, Hepburn and her team of librarians set out to prove that they can produce faster and more accurate results to reference questions than the Emerac can — the machine, by the way, is comically large enough to fill almost an entire half of the library. The Emerac tragically loses to Hepburn and her team’s efficiency.

Grace Murray Hopper stands in Navy uniform in front of an American flag.

Grace Murray Hopper. Image by the U.S. Navy

I won’t tell you the rest of the movie; you should watch it yourself. But it got me thinking about today’s computers and how far we have come: from the massive first computers to today’s tablets and, as my daughter just pointed out, the new Samsung Galaxy Gear, a computer on a wrist watch!

I also got to thinking about how the movie relates to one of the computer world’s pioneers, Grace Murray Hopper. It’s hard to summarize her life succinctly, but here goes. Hopper was born December 9, 1906, in New York City. Fascinated by mathematics at an early age, she graduated from Vassar College in 1928, and by 1934 had received master’s and doctoral degrees in the subject from Yale University.

Hopper began teaching mathematics at her alma mater Vassar, but that course was soon forever altered. A month after D-Day, she enlisted in the U.S. Navy as part of the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. She was immediately assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance to work on a project developing a computer. A few years later, she was working on the first large-scale computer development project, the Mark I. By 1949, she had joined the corporate world as an employee of the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, where she joined a team that would develop the UNIVAC, the world’s first commercially available computer.

These accomplishments alone would easily separate Hopper from the crowd, but she didn’t stop there. She is best known for inventing the first compiler, a technical component that translated human language into a language understood by the computer. From there, she wrote the computer language known as COBOL or Common Business-Oriented Language.

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And did you ever wonder where the term “computer bug” came from? Hopper coined the term after a moth accidentally flew into the Mark I, stuck to the inside, and caused the computer to stop working. When she removed the moth, she said the computer was “debugged,” and the term has been used ever since.

In 1973, Hopper was recalled to active duty. By 1983, she was promoted to commodore in the Navy, a position that would be renamed rear admiral two years later. Adding to a long list of accolades and honors, Grace Murray Hopper received the AAUW Achievement Award in 1983 and accepted the honor at the AAUW national convention in San Francisco.

Admiral Hopper retired from the Navy in 1986. At the time of her retirement, she was the oldest active-duty service member ever. She was admired for her tenacity and expertise and well-known for her wit and comedic talent. How do we know that? Right after her retirement, Hopper appeared on the late-night talk show The David Letterman Show, where she displayed not only her intelligence but also her sense of humor.

Who could have guessed how far computers have come? Hopper, the “grand old lady of software” and an AAUW awardee, in fact did. In the 1980s, when asked about the development of computers, Hopper hinted at how much progress was yet to be made: “We are still getting started. We are just beginning to meet what will be the future.” How right she was.

By:   |   December 04, 2013


  1. Brenda Sullivan says:

    Correction to article on Admiral Grace M. Hopper: The comment that when she retired she was the “oldest active service member ever” is inaccurate. I heard a comment from her often when someone would comment that she must be the oldest one in the Navy. She would reply no– that Admiral Rickover was older than she. Admiral Hyram Rickover, the founder of the US Navy’s nuclear power program, was born in 1900 and retired in 1982 at age 82. Admiral Hopper retired in 1986 at age 80. She was indeed the oldest then on active duty, but not “ever”. Also, technically she did not enlist in the Navy, but was commissioned. She started as LT(jg) or O2, by virtue of her doctorate. She was the third assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance to reprogram mines after two male Ensigns (O1) and is thereby designated at the third programmer in the world.

    Where do I get this information? I worked for Capt Hopper (O6) when I was enlisted (E5) and then again as her aide after I had been commissioned and finished my masters degree at Naval Postgraduate School and she had been promoted to Rear Admiral or Commodore (O7). Both assignments with her were fascinating and highlights to my 21 year career.

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