Ever since the days of Charles Babbage the engineering of computer hardware has been dominated by men. The pioneers of software, however, were often women, beginning with Babbage’s friend and muse Ada, Countess of Lovelace.
A century later, when the first electronic computers were being invented, the men were still focusing on the hardware, and many women followed in Ada’s footsteps. You probably don’t know the name Grace Hopper, but she should be a household name. As a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, Hopper worked on the first computer, the Harvard Mark I and she headed the team that created the first compiler, which led to the creation of COBOL, a programming language that by the year 2000 accounted for 70 percent of all actively used code. Passing away in 1992, she left behind an inimitable legacy as a brilliant programmer and pioneering woman in male-dominated fields.
Grace was curious as a child, a lifelong trait; at the age of seven she decided to determine how an alarm clock worked, and dismantled seven alarm clocks before her mother realized what she was doing (she was then limited to one clock. She graduated from Vassar in 1928 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics and earned her master’s degree at Yale University in 1930. In 1934, she earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale and her thesis, New Types of Irreducibility Criteria, was published that same year. Hopper began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931, and was promoted to associate professor in 1941.
Grace was enigmatic, disruptive and ahead of her times. On December 7th 1941 after Pear Harbour was bombed by the Japanese in the Second World War she joined the navy. As a former Maths lecturer she was put to work on the Harvard Mark I, the 51 foot maths calculating machine. She loved machines and considered the Mark I a beautiful machine. She was good at making machines work. Not interested in the parts of a computer that “you could kick” she was fascinated by what later came to be called Programming. The input system used in the Mark I was paper tape, a system in which you could physically punch your code out in the tape that was fed into the machine.
Grace Hopper helped find a way in which a ball could be made to collapse in on itself, this was called the implosion problem and the solution to this problem ultimately created the nuclear bomb which was later dropped on Hiroshima in Japan.
After the war she became Head of the Software Division for Eckert and Mauchly Comp, where as Head of the Software Division she popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages. She is credited with popularizing the term ‘debugging’” for fixing computer glitches, inspired by an actual moth removed from the computer.
Grace Hopper worked in the male dominated world of computers all her life and had no truck with people who called her a Trail Blazer. She didn’t admit that any trail needed to be blazed saying that if you work hard and are capable then recognition would follow. It must have amused her when she was voted Computer Man of the Year.
Always an independent thinker she hated the expression “But we’ve always done it that way” and visitors to her office would be perplexed and fascinated in equal measure by a clock on her wall that went backwards, “there is no reason why a clock should work one way or another” she would reason. Grace Hopper has been described as appearing to be “‘all Navy’, but when you reach inside you find a ‘Pirate’ dying to be released” and it may be this reason that a Jolly Roger flag was always flying in her office or to highlight her ability to release information from the most secure hideouts.
In 2014 eight thousand people attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and it was the world’s largest gathering of women technologists. The George R. Brown Convention Centre, Houston Texas is the location for the 2015 Celebration and will be held from October 14th – 16th with more people expected to attend than ever before, her name may soon be recognised in ever more households.