Sep 27

The Programming Pirate: The Inspiring Life of “Amazing” Grace Hopper

Thursday, September 27, 2018 12:01 AM

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Captain Grace M. Hopper, USNR Description: Head of the Navy Programming Language Section of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Working in her office, 1 August 1976. Photographed by PH2 David C. MacLean. (NHHC)

Captain Grace M. Hopper, USNR
Head of the Navy Programming Language Section of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Working in her office, 1 August 1976. (Photographed by PH2 David C. MacLean NHHC)

On 7 December 1941, Grace and her husband Vincent listened to the radio at their home as news of a surprise aerial attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese was reported. The next day, the United States joined Britain and declared war on the Japanese Empire. The Pearl Harbor attack “would also be the chronological fulcrum from which Grace Hopper’s own life would pivot. In the months that followed that fateful day, Grace Murray Hopper would leave her position as a tenured professor at Vassar College, divorce her husband, and join the U.S. Navy at the age of 36 years” (Beyer, 2012).

MAKING W.A.V.E.S.

On 21 July 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services. This authorized the all-male Navy to accept women in limited roles in the reserves. “’I was beginning to feel pretty isolated sitting up there, the comfortable college professor,’ she recalled. ‘I wanted very badly to get in [the Navy], so I finally gave Vassar an ultimatum that if they wouldn’t release me I would stay out of work for 6 months because I was going to join the Navy, period’” (Beyer, 2012). Although she failed the physical exam for being too short and underweight, her mathematics degrees were considered crucial to the war effort, so she obtained a waiver. “In December 1943, on the eve of her 37th birthday, she reported to the United States Naval Reserve Midshipman’s School in Northampton. Massachusetts” (Beyer, 2012).

While in school, IBM shipped a mysterious new machine to the basement of the Harvard Computation Laboratory. Hopper’s orders were changed before graduation allowing her to work on what was originally called the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, which stood 8 feet high, 3 feet wide, and 51 feet long. “It was a new secret type of weapon that could change the outcome of the war” (Beyer, 2012).

EARLY NAVY CAREER

As a freshly graduated Ensign, she was given a seemingly impossible task: become one of the first programmers of the world’s first computer. “During the war, she served in the Bureau of Ordnance’s computation project at Harvard University. In the university’s basement lab, she worked on some of the earliest computer equipment built and learned to program the first large- scale digital computer, the Mark I” (Pearson, 1992). The purpose of the Mark I was “to calculate solutions for rocket trajectories, proximity fuses, and mines, and to generate tables of mathematical functions that could be used to solve general engineering problems ranging from radio wave propagation to ship hull design” (Beyer, 2012).

On 27 June 1944, Hopper became a Lieutenant Junior Grade under the Command of Lieutenant Commander Howard Aiken, the man in charge of the Mark I. As the only woman assigned to the small crew, Hopper had to work, drink, and smoke twice as much as her male counterparts in order to win them over and be accepted. “Howard Aiken was disappointed that the Navy had assigned him a female officer to be second in command, an opinion he openly shared with the rest of the men on his staff’ (Beyer, 2012). Despite the sexist obstacles Hopper needed to overcome, she eventually tamed the mechanical beast by writing the operating manual for it, coding it, programming it, and inventing the earliest form of “hacking.” The Mark I was so successful under Grace’s care, it inevitably helped CDR Aiken develop the Mark II.

Title: Captain Grace M. Hopper, USNR Description: Head of the Navy Programming Language Section of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OP 911F). Working at her Desk, August 1976. (Photographed by PH2 David C. MacLean NHHC)

Captain Grace M. Hopper, USNR
Head of the Navy Programming Language Section of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OP 911F). Working at her Desk, August 1976. (Photographed by PH2 David C. MacLean NHHC)

The Mark II was located in Dahlgren, VA and was designed for ordnance computations. The most famous story of Hopper and her team working on the Mark II is the day they found a “bug” in the system. Hopper is sometimes credited with coining the term “bug,” but that is a myth. The term had long been in use, but the story in nonetheless interesting. In her own words:

“Naturally, since it was WWII, we were working in a WWI temporary building with no air conditioning, windows were open, and the Mark II stopped… We finally located the failing relay and inside the relay, being beaten to death by a relay contact, was a moth. So I go out and get a pair of tweezers and very carefully push the moth out of the relay, put it in the log book, put Scotch tape over it, and below wrote ‘first actual bug found.’” (MIT Lecture, 1985).

The New York Times falsely reported she invented the term ‘bug’ when in reality it was just a clever joke she made one day. From then on, however, anytime CDR Aiken asked why output was slow, Hopper and her team would brush him off by saying they were “debugging the computer” (Williams, 2012).

“PROJECT K” THE UNIVAC I, AND COBOL

Hopper and her programming team member, Dick Bloch, helped Dr. John von Neumann of The Manhattan Project with a problem called ’’Project K.” Dr. von Neumann asked them to use the Mark I to calculate “an implosion problem for detonating plutonium” (Williams, 2012). Since the Mark I was running 24 hours a day, Hopper and Bloch had to squeeze in time between other projects. After approximately 3 months, they developed the equation for the implosion problem and gave their results to Dr. von Neumann. Shortly after, on 6 and 9 August 1945, two plutonium fission bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. The war ended six days later. The Harvard Lab staff did not learn positively that their work had contributed to the design of the atomic bomb until after the war had ended” (Williams, 2012).

 Captain Grace M. Hopper, USNR Description: Head of the Navy Programming Language Section of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OP 911F). Discusses a phase of her work with a staff member, August 1976. (Photographed by PH2 David C. MacLean NHHC)

Captain Grace M. Hopper, USNR Head of the Navy Programming Language Section of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OP 911F). Discusses a phase of her work with a staff member, August 1976. (Photographed by PH2 David C. MacLean NHHC)

After the war, Lieutenant Hopper was offered a job at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation as a senior mathematician. She helped develop the UNI VAC I, “the first commercial large-scale electronic computer, which completed 1,000 operations a second” (Williams, 2012). Hopper recommended programming a new language using English words to tell the computer what to do. She was told it could never work, she was undeterred. Hopper often quipped, “It’s much easier to apologize afterwards than it is to get permission,” (Williams, 2012). She called her new program a “compiler” and developed it in 1952 when the Remington Rand Corporation bought the company. In 1954, now a Lieutenant Commander in the Reserves, she released the MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC, some of the first compiler-based programming languages. She was named the company’s first Director of Automatic Programming. This work would eventually serve as the foundation for developing COBOL.

“COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), including the format, was based on Hopper’s 1958 FLOW-MATIC manual… The Navy was quick to demand COBOL, accepting it officially in 1960, and other organizations began to implement it as well” (Williams, 2012). It became the programming language that Grace Hopper would justifiably become most famous for and is widely thought to be her biggest contribution to the computing world. It uses English words as commands, it’s incredibly accurate, it’s very fast (due to over 50 years of optimizations since its invention), and it runs on the web, mobile devices, and the cloud. “We are surrounded by COBOL. It runs over 70 percent of the world’s business transactions” (Taft, 2013).

Grace Hopper reluctantly retired from the Navy after 23 years of service on December 31, 1966 as a Commander. “’It was the saddest day of my life,’ recalled Hopper (Williams, 2012). However, seven months later she was recalled to active duty and remained in the Navy an additional 19 years. She was eventually promoted to Commodore (although the title changed to Rear Admiral Lower Half two years later). After serving in the Navy for approximately 42 years of her life, she was “the oldest officer on

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND AWARDS

Grace Murray Hopper was ranked number 52 on the list of The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time ahead of Margaret Thatcher, Amelia Earhart, Anne Frank, and Joan of Arc (Felder, 1995). In 1991, George W. Bush awarded her the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, one year before Bill Gates. She received the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award, the society’s highest honor. The U.S. Data Processing Management Association gave her the first annual ‘Man of the Year’ award (it was later renamed). In 1996, the Navy launched the missile guided destroyer DDG-70 and named it the USS Hopper. Some of her military awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and the Meritorious Service Medal. In 2016, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USNR Description: Receives congratulations from President Ronald Reagan, following her promotion from the rank of Captain to Commodore in ceremonies at the White House, 15 December 1983. (Photographed by Pete Souza NHHC)

Commodore Grace M. Hopper, USNR
Description: Receives congratulations from President Ronald Reagan, following her promotion from the rank of Captain to Commodore in ceremonies at the White House, 15 December 1983. (Photographed by Pete Souza NHHC)

Yale University and the U.S. Naval Academy both announced they were naming buildings after her. Today, Grace Hopper is celebrated annually at The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference (Anita Borg Institute, 2017). It began in 1994 with 500 women in attendance, but it has grown to over 15,000 people from all over the world. Amazon Data Engineer Sundas Khalid described the conference as “a great place to go and meet inspirational females in computer science. I always thought I was the only one, but then you realize you’re not alone… I networked with brilliant women from Facebook and Google and all over the world trying to get ahead” (Salinas, 2016). Only 15 percent of attendees are men and most women want to change that. Recently, “there has been a push to have more men attend the conference to help them understand the modem work environment and make it more inclusive. If only women show up to discuss issues, we remain in an echo chamber” (Salinas, 2016).

LOOKING AHEAD

The incredible life of Grace Hopper proves the strength of the Navy is its diversity. Our commitment to STEM ensures the Navy will continue to establish and maintain maritime superiority in today’s environment and for generations to come. This is true if we accept Grace Hopper as a leader, a visionary, and a hero. The next great innovator is out there and we must accept someone who thinks different, who is different, who finds motivation and inspiration in a backwards spinning clock on her desk. We can no longer afford to wait for innovation to fight its way up our ranks. With a compassionate mindset and a focus on finding the next “pirate hacker”, the Navy will lead America’s tomorrow. Let’s make sure Amazing Grace is not just our past but also our future.

References

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Beyer, K. W. (2012). Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Felder, D. G. (1995). The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time: A Ranking Past and Present. Cambridge, MA: Carol Publishing Group.

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Markoff, J. (January, 3, 1992). Rear Adm. Grace M. Hopper Dies; Innovator in Computers was 85, The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/03/us/rear-adm-grace-m-hopper-dies-innovator-in-computers-was-85.html

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N.A. (Updated June 27, 2017). Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, Anita Borg Institute. Retrieved from https://ghc.anitaborg.org/about/

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Pearson, R. (January 4, 1992). Adm. Hopper Dies, The Washington Post. Retrieved form https ://www. washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1992/01/04/adm-hopper-dies/4f9d5 c7c-3587-4618-ad0c-9b3afdcl60d9/?utm_term=.288adfeca7b5

Dr. Polich, J. (October 1981). Epidemiology of Alcohol Abuse in Military and Civilian Populations, Am J Public Health, Vol. 71, No 10. Retrieved from http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdfplus/10.2105/AJPH.71.10.1125

Safer, M. (Interviewer). (1983). Interview with Grace Murray Hopper [Video File], CBS News. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-60-minutes-interview-with-grace- murray-hopper/

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Taft, D. (June 24, 1013). COBOL: 10 Reasons the Old Language is Still Kicking, eWeek. Retrieved from http://www.eweek.com/development/cobol-10-reasons-the-old-language-is-still- kicking

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