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No. 3011:
Grace Hopper

by Janeen Judah

Today we meet Grace Hopper. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Grace Hopper was born in New York City in 1906 and grew up in Manhattan. She earned her bachelor's degree in math and physics from Vassar then continued to Yale, where she earned her PhD in math in 1934.

Grace Hopper
Grace Hopper. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Hopper returned to Vassar as a math professor, but by World War II, she grew restless in both her career and her marriage. After Pearl Harbor, Hopper changed her life. She left Vassar, filed for divorce, and joined the Navy at age 36. Lieutenant Hopper reported for duty at Harvard where she joined the team working on the Mark I, one of the first computers. 

The Navy had requisitioned the Mark I to solve equations for missile targeting, and later, the atomic bomb. Before these early computers, rooms full of people, often mostly women, solved complex problems by hand. But people-powered computation couldn't keep up with the volume, complexity and speed needed to win the war. Hopper's assignment was to create a way to talk to the Mark I ' to translate complex differential equations into commands that the computer could execute.

Grace Hopper being promoted to Comodore Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Hopper rose to the challenge. Her pioneering programs for the Mark I included perfecting "subroutines," or code for repetitive computing tasks, first conceptualized by Ada Lovelace in the 1830's. Her Harvard computer team may not have originated the term "Debugging", but it is forever associated with them because of a famous incident when an actual moth was plucked out of the electromagnetic machinery of the computer. Hopper also created the first computer programming manual, a 500 page history and programming guide to the Mark I.

Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in 1949 after leaving the Navy. This early startup developed the Univac computer ' the one made famous for predicting the '52 Presidential election. 

Grace Hopper working on the Univac computer Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Hopper continued to invent new ways to talk to the machines. She wrote the first compiler, which could translate computer instructions from English into machine language or "code." Computer startups took off in the 1950s and each new company programmed their computers in a different way. Hopper recognized the need for a common programming language that could be used across many hardware platforms. So, in 1959, Hopper released COBOL, a business-focused programming language still in use today. 

Hopper returned to active duty in 1967 to standardize computer programming languages across the Navy network. Later in her second Navy career, she traveled & spoke extensively on Navy bases and college campuses. Hopper struck an unforgettable figure, a tiny lady in cat's-eye glasses and her full Navy dress uniform, speaking frankly and forcefully on computing, technology and innovation. 

Rear Admiral Hopper finally retired from the Navy at the age of 80 as the oldest active duty officer in the US military. Hopper continued to consult and speak in the computing industry and on college campuses until her death in 1992. Grace Hopper was a pioneer of computer programming, sometimes remembered as the "Queen of Code." 

Computer Bug
The first computer bug Photo Credit: Wikipedia

I'm Janeen Judah, for the University of Houston, and interested in the way inventive minds work. 

(Theme music)

Biography Channel: http:

Isaacson, Walter, The Innovators, Simon & Schuster, 2014. pp. 88-95, 117-8.

Beyer, Kurt, Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age, Lemulsen Center Studies in Innovation, 2012. [available on]

Williams, Kathleen, Grace Hopper, Admiral of the Cyber Sea, 2004. [available on]


Ada Byron Lovelace: Engines of our Ingenuity, Episode 102. 

Documentary (2015):

On 60 Minutes (March 6, 1983):

On NPR: "The Queen of Code" (March 7, 2015):

This episode was first aired on June 12, 2015