Grace Murray Hopper
Dr Grace Murray Hopper revolutionised and modernised computer programming by inventing the first compiler, a program that converts programming code into machine language. She was one of the first computer programmers, working on the Hardvard Mark I – the first machine that could process long computations automatically, used in the war efforts during WWII.
Among many achievements, Dr Hopper helped to develop COBOL – one of the first high-level programming languages, and she reached the title of the Rear Admiral of the United States Navy, receiving the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (the highest award by the Department of Defence) upon retirement and holding over 30 honorary doctorate degrees.
To really understand the significance of Grace Hopper’s work on computing language, think of this.
You might have heard of ‘binary’ notation – that the basis of all computing language is ones and zeroes. This sort of thing:
Everything that a computer does can be reduced to many ones and zeroes.
How many? Well the Microsoft Windows programme takes about 20GB to run, which equates to 170 Billion ones and zeroes.
Imagine programming that from scratch.
The upshot of Hopper’s work on compiling – automatically translating what we want machines to do into this form of code – is that we don’t have to programme individuals computers and functions from scratch.
“If you ask me what accomplishment I’m most proud of, the answer would be all the young people I’ve trained over the years; that’s more important than writing the first compiler.”
Dr Grace Murray Hopper
Early Life, Education & Career
A young Grace Hopper’s fascination with machines is probably best illustrated by the lovely story about her taking apart her alarm clock to see how it worked, before proceeding to do the same to 7 other clocks in her house before her mum found her out…
This passion for machines translated into a wider mission throughout her career – to bring computing to a much wider audience.
After completing her Masters Degree in Physics and Maths at Yale University, and then her Maths phD 4 years later, Hopper returned to her alma mater, Vassar College, to teach maths and begin her research into computers and machine language.
She served in the Navy Reserves from 1943 and she stayed in her research fellowship under a Navy contract, who saw the amazing potential of her work to revolutionise military technology.
This notwithstanding, Hopper found that, throughout her career, she had to fight for the genius of her work to be recognised. She claimed that, on developing her first working ‘compiler’ in 1953, no one was interested in it because “computers could only do arithmetic”.
6 years later, she finished developing her new computer language – COBOL (standing for “COmmon Business-Oriented Language”) – and worked to standardise computing language throughout the world to make it more effective and accessible.
Her work saw her secure a stream of prestigious awards. In 1973, she became the first woman and the first American to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society, and by the time she retired from the Navy in 1986 (aged 80), she had attained the rank of Rear Admiral. She continued working to the end as a consultant to the Digital Equipment Corporation and was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991, several months before her death.