Grace Murray Hopper
Dr. Grace Murray Hopper, SWE Charter Member of the Philadelphia Section, Achievement Award winner, and Life Member, came to the Philadelphia area in 1949 when she joined the Eckert-Mauchley Corporation as a senior mathematician. She remained with the company when it was bought by Remington Rand in 1950 and later merged with the Sperry Corporation. She left the area in 1967 when she was recalled to active duty by the Navy and sent to the Washington, D.C. area. Dr. Hopper was the first Chairman of the SWE-Philadelphia Section. Throughout the years she often served as a speaker at various SWE events. In 1964 Grace Murray Hopper received the SWE Achievement Award, the Society’s highest honor, “In recognition of her significant contributions to the burgeoning computer industry as an engineering manager and originator of automatic programming systems.” She is credited with the conception of a compiling system that allows the computer to write its own program from key instructions and developed the first English language compiler that was later incorporated into the Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL).
Grace Murray Hopper was born in New York City, but she called Wolfeboro, NH her second home. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in 1928 with a BA in Mathematics and Physics. She continued her studies at Yale University where she earned two degrees in mathematics, an MA in 1930 and a Ph.D in 1934, at which time she was elected to Sigma Xi and was honored with two Sterling Scholarships. During this time, Grace also married Vincent Foster Hopper, an English instructor at the New York School of Commerce, in 1930 and she taught mathematics at Vassar College. The couple separated in the early 1940’s and were divorced in 1945, the same year he was killed in World War II. She continued to teach at Vassar until 1943 when, at the age of 34, she decided to serve her country by joining the Navy. Though considered overage and underweight for military enlistment, her position as a mathematics professor was declared critical to the war effort. Navy officials asked her to remain a civilian, but she obtained a waiver for the weight requirement, special government permission, and a leave of absence from Vassar, and was sworn into the U.S. Naval Reserve in December 1943. She trained at the Midshipmen’s School for Women and graduated first in her class.
Her first assignment was to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University as a programmer for the Mark I, the world’s first large scale digital computer. She also worked on the successor Mark II and Mark III computers. In 1946 she received the Naval Ordnance Development Award for her work on the Mark series. That year, at the age of 40, she was told that she was too old to remain in active service and was released from active duty in 1946. She then joined the Harvard Faculty at the Computation Laboratory and continued work on the Mark II and Mark III machines. One day during work on the Mark II, she and her programmers found a moth that had flown through an open window and into one of the computer’s relays, temporarily shutting down the system. Although some credit her with coining the term “bug” to refer to a glitch in machinery, the term had already been in use by Harvard personnel to describe problems with their computers. In the mid 1950s, Grace Hopper extended the meaning of the term “debug” to include removing programming errors.
In 1949 she left Harvard to join the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, which was building UNIVAC I and remained there when it was absorbed by Remington Rand and later Sperry Corporation. Despite ridicule from her peers at the suggestion that UNIVAC could be programmed to recognize English commands, she succeeded in developing the B-0 compiler, later known as FLOW-MATIC, which could be used for typical business tacks such as payroll calculation and automated billing. This language was used as a foundation for creating the standard manuals and tools for COBOL.
Although her age forced her to retire from the Naval Reserves in 1966, she was recalled to active duty at the Naval Data Automation Command in Washington, D.C., less than seven months later because the Navy was unable to develop a working payroll plan after 823 attempts and she was needed to help standardize the high-level computer languages.
This reinstatement made her the first woman to return to active duty. Although her original re-appointment was for only six months, it was later extended indefinitely. By special Presidential Appointment in November 1983, Grace Hopper was promoted to the rank of Commodore [Rear Admiral (lower half)]. In September 1986 at the age of 80, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper retired from the Navy with a ceremony held in her honor in Boston aboard the USS Constitution. At this ceremony, she was also presented with a silicon chip on a ribbon signifying her induction as First Fellow of the Computer Museum by Dr. Gwen Bell and Navy Secretary, the Honorable John F. Lehman, Jr., presented her with the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award given by the Department of Defense. In her honor, the Navy also named an Aegis Destroyer as The Amazing Grace.
After her retirement in 1986, she became a Senior Consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation and was active until about 18 months before she passed away in 1992. She was born on December 9, 1906 and had dreamed of living to the end of the century at the age of 94, but she was eight years short of the new century. She died on January 1, 1992 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
“RADM Hopper Retires.” U.S. WOMAN ENGINEER. November/December 1986.
1991 National Medal of Technology Citation
“Biographies of Women Mathematicians Grace Murray Hopper,” http://www.agnesscott.edu/LRIDDLE/WOMEN/hopper.htm
“Biographies in Naval History – Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, USN,” Link no longer working New Navy bio link