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Admiral Grace Hopper - Visionary Scientist
If not for Grace Hopper, programmers would be crafting code using mathematical symbols instead of alphabetic words. It's a bold statement and amazingly true.
Grace Brewster Murray's parents were an enlightened pair who believed that all their children deserved the highest possible education they could attain. She graduated from Vassar College in 1928 with degrees in physics and mathematics. From Yale she earned a Masters and a PhD in mathematics in 1928 and 1930 respectively.
She married professor Vincent Foster Hopper in 1930. She taught mathematics at Vassar from 1931 to 1943. She felt compelled to join the war effort at age 37, Hopper was assigned to military research at the Harvard Computation Laboratory. There she helped to develop the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator which later aided the builders of the atomic bomb. She was just getting started.
By 1945 with her marriage ended and having refused a professorship at Yale, Hopper devoted her energies to two things she was passionate about - serving her country in the Naval Reserves and studying computing science. She worked as a Harvard research fellow and as senior mathematician for Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation.
It was at Mauchly that Hopper designed the first English-language compiler called the A-1 compiler in 1951. A compiler is a computer program that helps an operator quickly create a list of instructions which is translated into object code which is understood by a computer. At the time there were no compilers whatsoever. Programmers had to create instructions manually in machine code each time the instruction was needed. This was a time consuming error prone activity.
Her second version the A-2 was known as the mathematical problem solving compiler for the Univac computer system. An operator would describe the problem in the A-2 application in a more natural alphabetic format. The A-2 would generate a translation in flawless machine code. The translation would be given to Univac who would output the solution. The A-2 saved the operator time and reduced errors. The success of the A-2 led to Hopper and her team creating the first compiler-based programmatic language called FLOW-MATIC. The FLOW-MATIC compiler with its English-like syntax was designed to automate common business tasks like invoicing and payroll. This was the first baby step made towards the development of the programming languages we use today.
In 1959 the most successful, user-friendly business application in history made its debut. COBOL was created to meet the goal of creating a single business-specific programming language. This language had to be useful on many kinds of computing platforms, simple in coding structure and understandable to anyone without a mathematics degree. COBOL was heavily influenced by Hopper's work with FLOW-MATIC.
The next two decades saw COBOL becoming entrenched in government, academic and enterprise computing as it was well suited to high volume file processing. Over time these systems have matured to the point that they are trusted and relied upon to process data with flawless efficiency and accuracy. For example, if you were filing a tax return it would likely pass through a system running COBOL during the filing process.
Modern programmers do not think highly of COBOL as an everyday language. COBOL lacks modern features found in current languages and methods like C or .NET but COBOL is not obsolete. Governments and financial institutions continue to maintain and improve COBOL applications critical to their operations.
Hopper's career did not end with COBOL. In the 70s, she drafted and implemented a set of standards for the validation and testing of compilers and programming languages. These standards are today maintained and administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She was promoted many times retiring with the rank of Rear Admiral in 1986 at the age 79.
Hopper's pioneering work retains its impact and influence into the modern age.
• She is credited with coining the terms "bug" and "debugging" after an incident involving a moth stuck inside the Mark II computer at Harvard.
• In 1969 she was the first ever recipient of the Data Processing Management Association's "Computer Science Man of the Year" award.
• The 500-foot destroyer U.S.S. Hopper was named after her. Her crew called the ship "Amazing Grace."
• On December 9, 2013, Hopper received a modern technology culture accolade - the creation and display of a Google doodle on what would have been her 107th birthday.
• The Anita Borg Institute has produced the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference since 1994 holding it in different places around the world each year.
Having done so much in her life, what was her greatest achievement? Here is her answer in her own words.
"The most important thing I've accomplished other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, 'Do you think we can do this?' I say 'Try it.' And I back 'em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir 'em up at intervals so they don't forget to take chances."
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