Women Who Changed Tech - Grace Hopper


When we began this blog series, we highlighted a video of five trailblazing women whose influential technical contributions paved the way for future generations. Now, we’re at the fifth stop in this journey, a blog series that offers an intimate look into the lives of these women, further exploring how their ground-breaking innovations have shaped have sculpted the landscape of the tech industry. 

Our very first blog post traveled back to the 1800s, spotlighting the world's first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, and her uniquely eccentric mentor. The subsequent blog post drew attention to the commendable achievements of visionary programmer Dr. Adele Goldberg, emphasizing her substantial contribution to the progression of modern computing and graphical user interfaces. In our third article, we shifted focus to Annie Easley, a remarkable woman who defied societal norms to contribute significantly to the aerospace and energy sectors. The fourth installment turned our lens to Karen Spärck Jones, a renowned computer scientist, lecturer and author who embarked on her journey in the seemingly unrelated realm of school teaching. Now, rounding out the first half of this series, we plunge into an in-depth exploration of the life of Grace Hopper, a pioneer in computer programming and a decorated Rear Admiral of the United States Navy.

Rising Through the Ranks

Grace Brewster Murray, better known as Grace Hopper, was born in New York in the early 20th century. The eldest of three children, she hailed from a family of Dutch and Scottish ancestry. Her great grandfather, Alexander Wilson Russell, was a naval admiral who fought in the American Civil War. Growing up in an affluent household, Hopper was educated at private schools, where she earned degrees distinguished by high academic achievement in physics and mathematics. She furthered her education at Yale University, obtaining a master’s degree in math, and four years later she achieved a Ph.D. in the same field while teaching at Vassar College – her alma mater, which at the time, was an all-female institution.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, which marked the United States’ entry into World War II, Hopper sought to join the war effort but was rejected due to her age and size. However, two years later, she managed to join the U.S. Naval Reserve and was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. It was at Harvard where Hopper would unknowingly become a pioneer in computer programming.

Making Her Mark I, Mark II And Mark III

During her time at Harvard, Hopper collaborated with Howard Aiken, a respected computer programmer credited with developing the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, also known as the Mark I, one of the earliest electromechanical computers. Hopper’s responsibilities in the project included programming the Mark I and writing what evolved into a 561-page user manual for the computer. This manual, globally unique at its creation, was the first of its kind at the time. Decades later, in a 1980 interview, Hopper reflected on her passion for making complex information more accessible, stating, “I’ve come to feel that there is no use doing anything unless you can communicate.”

Her contributions to the Mark I in the 1940s would shape her career path. As the war concluded, Hopper declined a full professorship offer from Vassar College to remain at Harvard, where she played a crucial role in the development of the Mark II and Mark III computers. In 1945, while working on the Mark II, Hopper and her team encountered a problem with their machine. Upon disassembling and inspecting the computer, Hopper’s team discovered a large moth. This event became the first known instance of referring to a computer problem as a bug, thus giving birth to the term debugging in the context of resolving computer issues.

Grace's Big Breakthroughs

In 1946, Hopper departed from active service. Despite her request for a regular commission with the Navy, she was turned down due to her age. Not long after, she left Harvard and joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, known for developing the world’s first electronic computer.

Philadelphia served as the backdrop for some of Hopper's most significant work. She assumed the role of head programmer at Remington Rand, working on UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer). Her programming team was responsible for developing the first computer language compiler, A-0, which allowed programmers to write one code applicable to multiple computers. Shortly after the creation of A-0, Hopper and her team created Flow-Matic, the first programming language to utilize English-like commands. The advantages of Flow-Matic became rapidly apparent, as data processors and programmers lacked a traditional background in mathematics or engineering, making the language a more accessible tool. In a 1980 interview, Hopper explained that the intention behind Flow-Matic was to enable “another whole group of people able to use the computer easily.” She made this statement while advocating for more user-friendly languages within the programming community, adding, “most of the stuff we get from academicians, computer science people, is in no way adapted to people.”

As the number of programming languages grew, so did the need for a standardized language for business applications. In 1959, COBOL (short for Common Business-Oriented Language) was introduced as the first standardized general business language. COBOL is characterized as an imperative, procedural, and object-oriented language. Although she wasn’t directly credited as COBOL’s inventor, she championed its use in the military and private sectors. Throughout the 1960s, she spearheaded efforts to develop compilers for this new language. Her biographer, Kurt Beyer, called her “the person most responsible for the success of COBOL in the 1960s.” By the 1970s, COBOL had become the most-used programming language worldwide. Even today, COBOL still plays a vital role in the finance industry and government sectors, with over 800 billion lines of code in active use today.

Amazing Grace

Throughout her career in the private sector, Hopper continued to serve as a Navy reservist. Her time with the U.S. Navy briefly interrupted when she was obliged to retire as a commander in 1966. She described her retirement day as “the saddest day of my life.” However, her disappointment was short-lived as she was summoned back to active service at the age of 60 to standardize the Navy’s diverse computer languages. Her subordinates in the Navy affectionately referred to her as “Amazing Grace” during her 19 years of active-duty service.

Upon concluding her tenure with the Navy, Hopper had attained the rank of Rear Admiral and was the oldest serving officer in the United States Armed Forces. But her career was far from over. At the age of 79, she took on a role as a senior consultant in public relations at the Digital Equipment Corporation, where she continued to work until 1991, one year before she passed away.

Inspiring Future Generations

Throughout her distinguished career, Hopper garnered over 40 honorary degrees, an array of scholarships, professorships, awards, and saw technology conferences named in her honor. In 1991, United States President George Bush presented Hopper with the National Medal of Technology, the country’s highest distinction in technology. In 2016, she received a posthumous honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, awarded by President Barack Obama. 

Hopper’s numerous achievements and contributions to technology will be recognized and used for decades to come. As Rosalie Bibona, Product Management Director for Extreme Networks points out, “Grace Hopper dedicated her life's work to simplifying and standardizing computer programming, allowing technology to surge well beyond its previous limits. Her work reshaped the trajectory of technology.” With nearly 1 trillion lines of COBOL, the programming language she helped popularize, in use today, it is evident that Hopper’s work will continue to influence enterprise technology for years to come. “Her innovations laid the groundwork for many things we take for granted every day like payroll and accounts,” adds Bibona, "With its extensive legacy in government IT infrastructures and its adaptability to operate seamlessly in both cloud-based systems and virtual environments, there's no question that COBOL will play a crucial role in shaping the future of the enterprise IT space." 

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Extreme Office of the CTO - OCTO
Office of the CTO

The Office of the CTO at Extreme Network analyzes forthcoming inflection points and trends for a wide audience – a relatable, trusted resource for future facing, new ideas at the cutting edge of technology and networking.

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