Do you know Grace Hopper?
Computer history is often thought of in terms of hardware. We think of systems that took up entire laboratory floors, rows of wires and input switches — but we’re less interested in the people that did the work and made the big leaps.
But if we delve back into history, we can dispose of some preconceptions about who is and is not suited to working in the field.
Who is Grace Hopper? To many, she’s the mother of computing.
A Good Gadget
Like many people who were around at the time of the conflict, Grace Hopper had her life changed irreversibly by World War II.
By the age of 35, she had already accomplished more than most. She held a Ph.D from Yale University, her dissertation had been published in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, and she had recently been promoted to assistant professor in her teaching role at Vassar College.
Then the Imperial Japanese Navy launched its attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. An estimated 2,403 Americans were killed, and a further 1,178 were injured. The United States of America would be drawn into World War II in the aftermath — and Hopper would throw herself into the effort.
“I had always loved a good gadget.”
In the eighteen months following the attack, Hopper took a leave of absence from her job, divorced her husband, and — despite being 15 pounds below the minimum weight requirement — enlisted in the Navy Reserve. In 1944, she graduated first in her class, and was told to report to Harvard University, where the hulking Mark I computer was installed.
“I had always loved a good gadget,” Hopper remembered in a speech featured in a FiveThirtyEight documentary about her work, The Queen of Code. “When I first saw the Mark I, I thought, ‘that’s the prettiest gadget I ever saw.’”
Howard Aiken, the original designer of the Mark I, quickly noticed Hopper’s capabilities. “Commander Aiken was a tough taskmaster,” she remembered while speaking at The Computer Museum in April 1983. “I was sitting at my desk one day, and he said, ‘you’re going to write a book.’ I said, ‘I can’t write a book.’ He said, ‘you’re in the Navy now.’ And so I wrote a book. I have it here with me. This is the Mark I manual.”
One day, Hopper was working on the Mark I manual. The next, she’s helping John Von Neumann solve a partial differential equation necessary for the development of the hydrogen bomb. Her brilliant mind was being put to good use.
Yet despite her success, when World War II came to an end and Hopper asked to be transferred from the reserves to the regular Navy, she was denied.
At the age of 38, Hopper was deemed too old to transfer from the Reserves to the regular Navy. But her accomplishments later in life would see her rise to the rank of Rear Admiral. Today, she’s remembered so fondly by the service that the U.S. Naval Academy’s new Center of Cyber Security Studies has been named Hopper Hall.
The Naval Academy is amid an effort to ramp up instruction pertaining to technological threats; the Center for Cyber Security Studies will help facilitate the teaching of a major entitled Cyber Operations, but there’s also a required cyber curriculum for all midshipmen. As far as the Naval Academy is concerned, it seems all cadets should be outfitted with a working knowledge of new technology — the benefits it can have to the service, as well as the threats it can pose.
It’s easy to imagine that Hopper would have liked to have seen her accomplishments added to a school syllabus
“I can think of no better way to honor Rear Admiral Hopper’s achievements specific to our cyber program and new cyber building’s function than to name the new building in her honor,” said Vice Admiral Ted Carter, the academy’s superintendent.
“I think that’s one way to celebrate her work,” said Zassmin Montes de Oca, vice chair of the board and chief maker at Women Who Code, when she spoke to Digital Trends about Hopper Hall. “It’s definitely a very common way to celebrate the work of influential people. It’s definitely one great way.”
However, there’s more than one way to honor an individual of Hopper’s caliber. “I would love to see it as part of what kids learn when they’re in school,” added de Oca. “When they get to learn about the history of computer science.”
When de Oca first learned about Hopper, her sense of pride in response to such an important figure was mixed with other feelings. “A part of me felt proud, and another part of me felt a little bit regretful,” she said. “How come we didn’t know about her in school, like we knew about other greats like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates?”
It’s easy to imagine that Hopper would have liked to have seen her accomplishments added to a school syllabus — not out of personal pride, but because she spent her life making computers more accessible to others.
Unfortunately, it’s doesn’t seem likely that Grace Hopper will be added to the national curriculum any time soon. But there are organizations that are committed to celebrating her life and work. The U.S. Naval Academy is one such body, and it’s not alone.
Never Take No for an Answer
“The first Grace Hopper Conference that I went to was right after I joined the institute,” said Elizabeth Ames, senior vice president of marketing, alliances, and programs for the Anita Borg Institute. “I have to say, I was really blown away, and I think most people that come to the conference for the first time have that same feeling.”
“She was one of the original programmers, and she never took no for an answer.”
In 1994, Anita Borg and Telle Whitney made the decision to organize a conference for women holding technical roles in the computing industry. The result was the inaugural Grace Hopper Conference, held in Washington, D.C. The event has grown enormously since that first gathering of 500. It’s been held annually since 2006, and since 2011 it’s been held in a convention center to accommodate its thousands of attendees.
“I believe the reason that Telle and Anita chose to honor Grace Hopper was just that she was such an iconic figure for women in the industry,” Ames explained. “She was there at the very beginning of the industry. She was one of the original programmers, and she never took no for an answer.”
Ames also noted Hopper’s role in claiming women’s position in the industry. She did this not only by blazing her own trail and leading by example, but also by teaching others. Throughout her life, Hopper displayed an unyielding desire to show others they were capable of technical roles.
“She really loved technology, and she really wanted to make it approachable to everybody,” said Ames. “She was incredibly good at helping people understand concepts, making them very concrete and simple for people. The classic example is her nanosecond.”
Hopper’s nanosecond was an 11.8-inch length of wire. This teaching aid was designed to give a real, physical form to the amount of distance that electricity can travel in a billionth of a second. This was a difficult idea for many students to grasp, given the miniscule amount of time being discussed and the intangible nature of an electric current, but connecting the lesson to an object made it easier to comprehend.
“That was a way of helping people to understand what that was,” added Ames. “It was concrete, and it was memorable.”
This example demonstrates Hopper’s ability to make computers and computing approachable to anyone, whether they’re still learning, or from outside the sphere of tech entirely. That same spirit of inclusivity would inspire her greatest contribution to the rise of computing.
Writing in English
In 1949, Hopper took a job with the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, which would subsequently be swallowed up by Remington Rand. This would be the setting for an idea that would shake the foundations of the nascent computing industry.
“I’ve driven a large number of people at least partially nuts,” reported Hopper in another speech featured in The Queen of Code. “After all, insisting on talking to computers in plain English was a totally ridiculous idea. You couldn’t do that — except, it worked.”
“I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. They told me computers could only do arithmetic.”
It’s important to remember just how different computers were at the time. Without the luxury of a user interface, a system like the Mark I or the later UNIVAC I was closer to a calculator than our modern PCs.
Forget any kind of desktop environment intended to make things user-friendly — working with these systems typically involved submitting input with a keyboard or a typewriter, and receiving an answer printed on magnetic tape. This tape was also used to deliver input, in many cases.
This process required the work of skilled engineers and programmers working together. It was complicated even further by the fact that programming languages as we know them today were yet to be conceived. Input was delivered via machine code, an arcane mix of numbers and symbols that was typically specific to each computer system.
Information was being delivered in a way that was palatable to the hardware, without intuitive verbal commands to make things more straightforward for the operator.
To remedy the situation, Hopper produced the first working compiler, a type of program that translates source code written in a programming language into machine code that a computer can understand. “Nobody believed that,” Hopper is quoted as saying. “I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. They told me computers could only do arithmetic.”
Of course, something as powerful as a working compiler wouldn’t be ignored for long. Hopper was named as Remington Rand’s first director of automatic programming in 1954, leading a department that would create the influential FLOW-MATIC language. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, she would once again work with the U.S. Navy on a range projects related to programming.
Those Who Can, Teach
“The thing that comes through in her teaching is her enthusiasm for it,” said Ames. “And her fundamental belief that everyone could do these things, and that it wasn’t impossible.”
“There’s a reason why we call it the Grace Hopper Celebration. It is really a celebration of women in computing.”
Whether she was creating a teaching aid for a class of twenty students, or creating a compiler that would make the process of writing code more of a human endeavor, Grace Hopper was always committed to making the entrance to the world of computing that little bit wider. That spirit is still a core element of the event that bears her name.
“There’s a reason why we call it the Grace Hopper Celebration. It is really a celebration of women in computing,” Ames explained. “There’s this palpable excitement and positive energy around doing great things in tech, and women feeling empowered and being a part of it. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve been there. It’s funny, because we always say that to people — and I’m sure they kind of roll their eyes like, yeah right — and then they come, and they’re just blown away.”
It’s not difficult to find examples of attendees who have benefited from the event. Last year, Hearsay Social CEO Clara Shih delivered a plenary talk; eleven years earlier, she attended the event for the first time thanks to the Anita Borg Institute’s scholarship program. Over 500 attendees of GHC 2016 had their travel and accommodation paid for by the organization.
“I’ve spent my whole career working in Silicon Valley,” said Ames. “I know what an uphill track it can be for women, at times. Sometimes you feel that, but you can’t quite put words to it, so you think it may be just you. So, when I got connected with the institute, I realized the power of connecting women together, and helping them realize that the challenges aren’t them; the challenges are embedded in the industry.”
Women gather at the Grace Hopper Celebration to add another layer of dirt to the myth that men are somehow better suited to technical roles. Of course, knowing what Hopper did in her life should be enough to bury that idea — and that’s why it’s so important that everyone knows her story, and the stories of women like her.
“These stories are incredibly important, because they start to break down the stereotypes that we all hear in the media all the time, that don’t really include women, and certainly don’t include women of color,” said Ames. “I think that when we can debunk those and show that they’re just not true, it encourages people to see themselves as a part of the industry. “
“We need that, more now than ever — for everyone to be a participant in the industry.”