Someone We Should Remember
December 6, 2015 21 Comments
What does it take for someone to have a navy ship named for them, and a tech conference as well? How about if it’s a woman? It takes a lot. Likely though, you’ve never heard of her.
I’m lucky, I guess, I have. She was the graduation speaker (a good many years ago) when my niece graduated William and Mary. She was also a pretty good speaker. Who was she? Professor Admiral “Amazing Grace” Hopper, PhD.
Grace Hopper isn’t a household name. But it should be.
As Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer of the United States, noted in the short documentary The Queen of Code:
“She’s like an Edison of our day. Like a Turing. And yet Hopper isn’t with those names in the history books. And it needs to be.”
Why Should Hopper’s Name Be in the History Books?
Let’s start with this: To the best of my knowledge, Grace Hopper is the only person in history to have both a tech conference (the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing — the world’s largest gathering of women technologists) and a U.S. Navy destroyer (the 500-foot, 7,000-tonU.S.S. Hopper) named in their honor.
Those two accolades might begin to give you a sense of just how extraordinary the accomplishments of Professor Admiral “Amazing Grace” Hopper, PhD truly were. (And yes, those titles are legit.)
In 1934, Hopper became the first woman to earn a PhD in mathematics from Yale (which she earned in absentia while teaching math and physics at Vassar College). Then, in 1985, at the age of 78, she became the first woman to reach the rank of Admiral in the U.S. Navy.
As you might imagine, a lot of stuff (in this case, stuff that would revolutionize the world of computing) happened in-between those two events.
In 1943, Hopper joined the Naval Reserves. Three years later, she was assigned to inactive duty at Harvard’s Computation Laboratory, where she worked on programming the Mark I — the first computer that could automatically execute long computations.
In 1949, she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, where she worked on programming the UNIVAC I — the world’s first large-scale electronic computer.
Hopper was one of the first computer programmers … ever.
Know the expression “debugging” a computer? Hopper was one of the first people to use it. And at the time, it referred to literally removing bugs (moths, in particular) from computer components.
During her time at Eckert-Mauchly, Hopper had a breakthrough idea — an idea that would come to define her computing career. After noticing that her fellow programmers were constantly writing the same commands over and over, Hopper suggested that they write their commands down once and then store them in shared libraries.
By 1952, this idea had evolved into the world’s first compiler (Hopper’s greatest innovation), which allowed programmers to store and recall code using English language-based commands.
But You’ve Probably Never Heard of Her
A truly great woman, who get far less recognition than she deserves for her seminal, and objectively stunning contributions, that in large part have made the world we live in possible. Another Edison? Yes, but maybe even more, perhaps another Nikola Tesla, because of the wide range of applicability of her inventions.