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Admiral Grace Hopper Pioneering Computer Scientist

Guest Author - Julie L Baumler

first actual computer bug in log bookLike most of the early computer scientists, Admiral Grace Brewster Murray Hopper (1906-1992) was originally a mathematician. She earned her Bachelor's degree Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar and her Masters and PhD from Yale, all in mathematics. She taught math at Vassar for over 10 years before joining the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) during World War II. In the Navy, she became one of the first programmers on the first large computer in the US, the Mark I. (O'Connor and Schieber say third programmer, Dickason says first.) She used this experience to write the first American programming manual. [Maisel] In addition to the Navy, she worked at Harvard, Sperry-Univac and DEC (Digital Equipment Company.)

Admiral Hopper was involved in many firsts in computing. She invented and wrote the first compiler [Maisel]. She was critical in bringing computing out of the military and into business, where she invented the language Flow-Matic, the first that used human language and then was one of the inventors of COBOL.[O'Connor] She started the now familiar process of language standardization when she worked within the Navy to standardize COBOL. Admiral Hopper is often credited with coining the term "computer bug", this is untrue, but she did find the first actual bug causing a hardware problem (see image) and expanded the definition to include software problems. She was a strong advocate of applying systems thinking to computing and advocated for using systems made up of smaller computers rather than building more and more powerful larger computers. Out of all of her accomplishments, Admiral Hopper felt that the most important one was teaching others.

Admiral Hopper's name often comes up in discussions of women in computing. In fact, the primary conference for women in computing is named after her the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. It is true that Admiral Hopper's likely faced some additional barriers due to her gender, particularly in her early educational career. For instance, she was the first woman to receive a PhD in Mathematics from Yale (on the other hand her class of 10 consisted of 4 women. [Grace] ) However, I feel like sometimes the fact that she was an important and well-known woman in early computing is allowed to overshadow the fact that she was an important person in early computing. What Admiral Hopper accomplished was important for computing, business, and the US military quite independent of her gender. I think it is telling that she received the first "Man of the Year" award from the Data Processing Management Association (DPMA) (in 1969 man was a synonym for person), clearly her gender was not an issue in her value and notoriety within the field.

In addition to her well-known technical skill and enthusiasm for teaching and sharing knowledge, Admiral Hopper was also skilled at marketing and business. [Grace] She was a tireless advocate of embracing change and was unwilling to give up on good ideas. All of these attributes led to her amazing successes. Admiral Hopper is an amazing computer scientist and inspiration for all of us.

References from this article are available in the Computer Careers Annotated Bibliography

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