Women in History: Rear Admiral Grace M. Hopper

As we continue our recognition of outstanding women in history, this week’s feature goes to Grace M. Hopper, an American computer scientist and U.S. Navy rear admiral. The late Hopper, who often was called “Amazing Grace” by her peers, is credited for leading the team that created the first computer language compiler that was a precursor to the widely used COBOL language. Read on to learn more about Hopper’s education, career and accolades:

Early Beginnings

Grace Hopper was born in New York City in 1906, and was the eldest of three children. She studied mathematics and physics at Vassar College at the age of 17 before proceeding to study at Yale University where she received a master’s degree in mathematics. In 1931, Hopper began teaching at Vassar College while also continuing her education at Yale, where she became the first woman to earn Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934.

World War II

During her time teaching at Vassar, she was promoted to associate professor in 1941, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II, Hopper obtained a leave of absence to join the U.S. Navy Reserve. Hopper originally tried to enlist in the Navy early in the war, but she was denied due to her age (34 years at the time of enlistment) and because her height to weight ratio was too low. She was also denied enlistment because of her job as a mathematician, which was seen as valuable in the war effort.

Hopper was one of the many women to volunteer to serve in WAVES, the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, a branch of the U.S. Navy Reserve during WWII. She graduated first in her class in 1944 and was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University as a lieutenant. Here, Grace worked under Howard Aiken, who had developed the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, also known as the Mark I.

The Mark I and the Beginning of a Computing Career

Grace was one of the first three computer programmers to work on the Mark I, one of the earliest electromechanical computers. She was responsible for programming the Mark I and punching machine instructions. Hopper also wrote the 561-page manual for the Mark I computer.

After the war, Grace continued her career as a Navy reserve officer. She worked as a research fellow at Harvard where she continued her computer career working on the Mark II and Mark III computers. While at Harvard, a moth shorted out the Mark II computer, and Grace is often given credit for popularizing the term “computer bug” and “debugging” in regards to solving computer issues.

Hopper remained working at Harvard Computation Lab until 1949 when she took on a position as a senior mathematician overseeing the team that was developing the UNIVAC I at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. In 1952, her team created the first compiler for computer languages. The compiler was a precursor for the COmmon Business Oriented Language (COBOL), a widely adapted language that would be used globally. By the 1970s, COBOL was the most extensively used computer language in the world.

Returning to Her Naval Roots

Grace retired from the Naval Reserve at the age of 60 with the rank of commander. However, in August 1967, Hopper was recalled to active duty for a six-month period that turned into an indefinite assignment. During this time, she worked to standardize communication between various computer languages. She retired again at the age of 79 as a rear admiral, one of the Navy’s few female admirals. At the time of her retirement, Hopper was the oldest serving officer in the service.

Later Years, Legacy and Accolades

Graced was reportedly “bored stiff” after she retired and took another position post-retirement, staying in the computer industry for several more years. She was hired as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), a position she remained in until her death in 1992, age 85. Hopper was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

During the course of her life, Hopper was awarded 40 honorary degrees from universities around the world, along with various awards including:

  • In 1964, she was awarded the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Aware, the Society’s highest honor
  • First winner of the “Computer Science Man of the Year” award from Dara Processing Management Association in 1969
  • First person from the U.S. and first woman from any country to be made Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society in 1973
  • First woman to receive the National Medal of Technology as an individual in 1991
  • The USS Hopper, a naval ship that was commissioned in 1997, was named in her honor; it is one of the very few ships named in honor of a woman
  • In 2016, Hopper was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her accomplishments in the field of computer science

Throughout her long career, Grace Hopper served as a role model and inspiration to women working in STEM fields. Without her pioneer work in the field of computer programming, much of today’s computer science would look very different. Her dedication to education and the promotion of STEM fields echo through her legacy even today.

About Andrea D.