Obama to honor two women who helped shape computer science as we know it

medal of freedom grace hopper margaret hamilton gracehopper harvard
Harvard University
Though there’s an appalling dearth of women in technology today, their role in shaping the industry has not been forgotten. Next week, President Barack Obama will celebrate two of the women most instrumental in helping to shape computer science as we know it — Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton — by awarding them (along with 19 other individuals) the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It’s the highest civilian honor in the U.S., and is awarded to those “who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, known fondly as “Amazing Grace” and “the first lady of software,” is responsible for the development of programming languages between the 1940s and ’80s. Hopper wrote the world’s first compiler (the A-0), while she was working on the Univac I computer in the mid-20th century, This compiler ultimately served as the basis for COBOL, and was instrumental in bringing about subsequent programming languages. Though she died in 1992, her legacy has been celebrated in the decades since, with events like the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the world’s largest meeting of women in technology.

Margaret H. Hamilton, on the other hand, is credited with coining the term “software engineering,” and has played an integral part in space travel. Hamilton, now 80, was at the forefront of a NASA Apollo team that created the inflight software for both the command and lunar modules. Her error detection and recovery software allowed for a successful moon mission on Apollo 8.

“The Presidential Medal of Freedom is not just our nation’s highest civilian honor — it’s a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better,” said President Obama of the honorees. “From scientists, philanthropists, and public servants to activists, athletes, and artists, these 21 individuals have helped push America forward, inspiring millions of people around the world along the way.”

You can watch the live-stream of the event at www.whitehouse.gov/live.

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