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Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

I sit and press tiny black trapezoids on the keyboard and glance up occasionally at the white screen to view the words that appear there. It is absolutely amazing to me. I remember in high school when we were taught how to write numbers in bases other than ten, and how excited my teacher became when we mastered base two because ‘that was the language of computers!’ Now, instead of typing in strings of 1 and 0, I type in words and read them and surf the net and blog (OK, so I don’t actually blog yet, but I am on a few social networks). The woman, the scientist, the mathematician, the computer programmer I have to thank for this is Grace Murray Hopper, US Navy Rear Admiral, retired.

Amazing Grace was already married, with Bachelor, Master, and Doctoral Degrees in Mathematics and had a career as a professor at Vassar College by the time WWII started and women were encouraged to join the military. She was thirty-four years old, five foot four and one-hundred-five pounds at the time. Too old. Sixteen pounds too light for her size. She was already in a “crucial occupation” as a Math Professor. To sum things up – the Navy didn’t want her. Nevertheless, she joined the Naval Reserve in 1944 as a Lieutenant (Junior Grade). When she retired as a Commander in 1966, she was recalled to active duty the next year for “six months.” When the six months were up, her orders were changed. Her “services would be needed indefinitely.” Eventually she retired as a Rear Admiral (one of the Navy’s few females in that rank) as the oldest serving officer at the time.

So how does a woman who isn’t wanted by the military become indispensable to it?

When she was a child, she took apart alarm clocks to try to figure out how they work. As an adult, she had a clock on her wall ran counter-clockwise.

She excelled in compare/contrast phrasing to get her points across. “It is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” is one of her most famous sayings. Another is “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what a ship is built for.” My favorite is, “You manage things; you lead people.” She took facts and put them in a language that common people understand.

She did the same with computers. When she first began her career, computers were actually glorified calculators, capable of storing up to seventy-two words and performing tasks at the speed of a fast abacus. And the language the machine understood consisted of two digits: 0 and 1. By the middle of her career, she developed COBAL (Common-Business Oriented Language) which made computers able to respond to words rather than just numbers.

Names, nicknames, and labels seem to flow right in with the stream of language. Grace Murray Hopper is known as Grand Lady of Software, Amazing Grace, and Grandma COBOL. Women employees of Microsoft were often called Hoppers, and formed a group under that name which now has over three thousand members worldwide. The destroyer USS Hopper (DDG-70), The Grace Murray Hopper Service Center at the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station in San Diego, the Grace Murray Hopper Center for Computer Learning at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro New Hampshire, and the Grace Murray Hopper Award (given by the Association for Computing Machinery every year since 1971 to the younger-than-thirty-five year old computer professional who ‘makes a single significant technical or service contribution' – recipients include Steve Wozniak in 1979) are just a few of the nouns in her honor.

Have you ever had to debug your computer? You can even thank Grace for that – that phrase, I mean. In September of 1945 while working at the Harvard University Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator, she discovered a moth trapped between points at Relay # 70, Panel F. She declared she had just debugged the computer, and the name stuck. (They also stuck the moth onto the log with tape.)

Born Dec. 9, 1906 and died Jan. 1, 1992, Grace was laid to rest with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Her ranks, education, careers (she never had just one at a time), medals, honors, and degrees are available on line with just a few strokes on the keyboard. She was a fascinating woman, a phenomenal veteran, and an amazing mathematician. Be grateful to her for being able use your computer with such fluidity and ease.

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