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CHIPS Articles: About Grace Hopper

About Grace Hopper
By CHIPS Magazine - June 27, 2011
Updated March 2017

Welcome to the CHIPS magazine Grace Murray Hopper webpage

Rear Adm. Grace Hopper was a pioneer in the field of computer science and for more than four decades was at the forefront of computing development — in the U.S. Navy, academia and in industry. Despite the many astonishing technology changes that have occurred since her death, she remains admired worldwide and ever popular with CHIPS readers.

Grace Brewster Murray was born Dec. 9, 1906, in New York, New York. She entered Vassar College at 17, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1928 with a BA in mathematics and physics, and received a Vassar College Fellowship. While she was an instructor at Vassar, Hopper attended Yale University, where she received the degrees of MA in 1930, and Ph.D. in 1934, together with election to Sigma Xi and two Sterling Scholarships. She was one of four women in a doctoral program of 10 students, and her doctorate in mathematics was a rare accomplishment in its day, according to Yale.

In 1930 Grace Murray married Vincent Foster Hopper; they divorced in 1945, but Hopper kept her married name.

While at Vassar as an assistant in mathematics in 1931, Hopper became successively, instructor, assistant professor, and associate professor. During this time, she received a Vassar Faculty Fellowship and studied at New York University between 1941and 1942.

In December 1943, she entered the United States Naval Reserve and attended the UNSR Midshipman’s School-W at Northampton, Massachusetts, determined to join the war effort. Upon graduation, she was commissioned lieutenant (junior grade) and ordered to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard. Here, she learned to program the first large-scale digital computer, Mark I.

In 1946, she resigned from her leave-of-absence from Vassar and joined the Harvard Faculty as a Research Fellow in Engineering Sciences and Applied Physics at the Computation Laboratory where work continued on the Mark and Mark II computers for the Navy. In 1946, she received the Naval Ordnance Development Award.

In 1949, she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. in Philadelphia, then building the UNIVAC I— the first commercial large-scale electronic computer— as a senior mathematician. Hopper remained with the company as a senior programmer when it was bought by Remington Rand and later merged into the Sperry Corporation. She was appointed systems engineer, director for automatic programming in 1952 when she published the first paper on compilers. In 1964, she became staff scientist, systems programming. She retired from the UNIVAC Division of the Sperry Rand Corp. in December 1971.

After retiring from the Naval Reserve at age 60 with the rank of commander in 1966, Hopper was recalled and assigned to the Chief of Naval Operations staff as director, Navy Programming Languages Group (OP 911F). She was promoted to captain in 1973, commodore in 1983, and rear admiral in 1985. Hopper last served as Special Assistant to the Commander, Naval Data Automation Command until 1986 when she retired as a rear admiral.

At the time of her retirement, at 79 years of age, Hopper was the oldest commissioned officer in the United States Navy. She was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal presented by then Navy Secretary John Lehmann. Hopper remained active in industry and education until several months before her death New Year’s Day 1992. She was interred in Arlington National Cemetery will full military honors.

Dr. Hopper published more than 50 papers and articles about software and programming languages. Her interest in applications programming sent her to the first meeting of CODASYL with a strong interest in the development of COBOL (common business-oriented language). She also served on the ANSI Xe.4 Committee for the standardization of computer languages and the CODASYL Executive Committee.

The admiral knew that the key to computing advancements was the development and improvement of programming languages — languages that could be understood and used by people who were neither mathematicians nor computer experts. It took several years for her to demonstrate that this idea was feasible to her skeptical colleagues, but she persevered.

Hopper served, starting in 1959, first as visiting lecturer; in 1962, as visiting assistant professor; in 1962, as visiting associate professor; and in 1973, as adjunct professor of engineering at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania. In 1961, she was appointed professorial lecturer in management science at George Washington University and served until 1978.

In 1962, she was elected Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Also in 1962, she received the honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering from the Newark College of Engineering, a Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal from Yale University, and was made a Fellow of the Association of Computer Programmers and Analysts.

In 1963, she received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the C. W. Post College of Long Island University, was elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering, was presented with the Legion of Merit by the Navy, and was selected as a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society.

In 1964, she was selected to receive the 1964 Achievement Award by the Society of Women Engineers.

In 1969, the Data Processing Management Association selected her as the first Computer Sciences “Man of the Year.” The American Federation of Information Processing Societies gave her the Harry Goode Memorial Award in 1970.

In 1971, the UNIVAC Division of the Sperry Corporation initiated the Grace Murray Hopper Award for young computer personnel to be awarded annually by the Association for Computer Machinery.

In 1974, she received the honorary degree, Doctor of Laws, from the University of Pennsylvania at the 50th Anniversary Convocation honoring the Moore School of Electrical Engineering.

In 1976, she received the Distinguished Member Award of the Washington, D. C. Chapter of the Association for Computer Machinery, and an honorary Doctor of Science from Pratt Institute. In 1979, she received the W. Wallace McDowell Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

In 1980, Hopper received the Meritorious Service Award from the Navy; an honorary Doctor of Science from Bucknell University, Arcadia University, Loyola University, Chicago, and Southern Illinois State University; and an Honorary Doctor of Public Service from George Washington University, Washington, D. C.

Dr. Hopper was a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a member of the Association for Computing Machinery, the Data Processing Management Association, the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Franklin Institute, the U. S. Naval Institute, and the International Oceanographic Foundation.

As the co-inventor of COBOL, Hopper has been referred to as “The Grand Lady of Software” and “Grandma COBOL” — and because of her many extraordinary achievements —“Amazing Grace.”

Hopper’s legendary standing has much to do with her persistence and absolute belief in the limitless power of computing technology and her impatience with bureaucracy. She is remembered for her now famous quip, "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."

In Admiral Hopper’s opinion, the greatest obstacle to innovation is taking the stance, “We've always done it this way” — and heaven help anyone who uttered that thought in her presence.

Hopper loved young people and engaging with young naval officers and students, speaking at engineering forums, colleges, universities and computer seminars, encouraging and sharing her knowledge and experience throughout her life.

The admiral could spellbind an audience with examples of the computing revolution and her uncanny ability to predict the trends of the future. Admiral Hopper theorized that a wider audience could use the computer if it could be made both programmer-friendly and application-friendly. During her lifetime many of her predictions were realized as industry built more powerful, more compact machines, and developed the operating systems and software that allowed ordinary individuals to own and operate a personal computer.

Hopper was a gifted educator and a popular speaker, in some years she addressed more than 200 audiences, according to Yale history files.

To illustrate her ideas, Admiral Hopper often used analogies and examples that have become legendary. A favorite was a demonstration of the swift passage of time. Hopper holding a piece of wire about a foot long, would explain that it represented a nanosecond, since it was the maximum distance electricity could travel in wire in one-billionth of a second. She often contrasted this nanosecond with a microsecond — a coil of wire nearly a thousand feet long— as she encouraged (some would say admonished) young naval officers and programmers not to waste even a microsecond.

Hopper envisioned that in the near future, children would be doing their homework and learning on computers. She always embraced and looked forward to the technology developments of the future.

Sept. 16, 1991, President George Bush awarded retired Rear Adm. Grace M. Hopper the National Medal of Technology “for her pioneering accomplishments in the development of computer programming languages that simplified computer technology and opened the door to a significantly larger universe of users.” She was the first woman to receive America's highest technology award as an individual.

Inspired by the legacy of Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, the Anita Borg Institute, with the Association of Computing Machinery, presents the annual Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing bringing the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront. Held since 1994, the 2016 annual conference hosted 15,000 attendees from 87 countries, according to the Anita Borg Institute website .

Dec. 9, 2013, on the occasion of what would have been her 107th birthday, Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper was featured as a Google doodle.

U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Ted Carter announced during his opening remarks at the Naval Academy History Conference Sep. 8, 2016, that the academy's future Cyber Building will be named after Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.

"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 Carter. "Admiral Hopper's foresight in computing and pioneering contributions to cybersecurity, memorialized in Hopper Hall, will inspire midshipmen, support their technical and professional development, and serve as a role model to encourage midshipmen ingenuity and determination for many years to come."

Hopper Hall will be the first building at the Naval Academy named after a woman.

Remarkable, charismatic and inventive, Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, best known for her advancements in computer programming and data processing, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously by President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony Nov. 22, 2016.

"If Wright is flight, and Edison is light, then Hopper is code," Obama said of the innovator who he noted was a gutsy and colorful woman who, when she joined the Navy was 15 pounds below military health standards, yet attained a long and prosperous career.

Computers and networks are ubiquitous today so it may be hard to imagine that when Hopper was working in the early days of computing, there were only a few computers operating in the U.S. and most were in labs. They were huge, bulky calculation machines, easily filling a room. Hopper’s maverick spirit led her to challenge many of the early concepts of computing. Many of her colleagues believed that only scientists and computer experts would be able to operate and understand computers and dismissed the notion of the need for a vast network of computers in business, government, financial institutions, and academia — as well as use by ordinary people. But Hopper passionately believed that advances in computer science would continue to accelerate leading to smaller, more user-friendly computers.

Hopper’s success in the male-dominated fields of academia and the technology industry, and in male-dominated organizations, including the U.S. military and engineering forums, was phenomenal and due to her insight, genius and determination — she never gave up on her ideas.

Dr. Hopper’s lasting achievements continue to be recognized today. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with each new award and honor.

Yale President Peter Salovey announced Feb. 11, 2017, that the university would rename Calhoun College, one of 12 undergraduate residential colleges, to honor one of Yale’s most distinguished graduates, Grace M. Hopper, by renaming the college for her, according to a Yale news release.

The release called Hopper a “trailblazing computer scientist, brilliant mathematician and teacher, and dedicated public servant.”

“In selecting a new name for the college, Yale honors the life and legacy of Grace Murray Hopper. Hopper “was an exemplar of achievement in her field and service to her country,” said Salovey.

While Admiral Hopper received many awards and honors during her lifetime; she often said that she was most proud of her service in the U.S. Navy.

Sources: Naval History and Heritage Command - https://www.history.navy.mil/ and CHIPS Magazine, enter in search engine “Grace Hopper” for related articles.

Did you know USS Hopper (DDG 70) is named in honor of Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper?

Rear Adm. Grace Hopper Remembered — Honored with a Google Doodle Dec. 9, 2013, Rear Adm. Grace Hopper was a Navy pioneer in the computer technology field. Watch this video to learn more about her story: http://www.navy.mil/viewVideo.asp?id=19047.

See also the Yale University and Vassar College historical entries regarding Hopper, such as: http://cs-www.cs.yale.edu/homes/tap/Files/hopper-story.html .

If you have memories to share about Admiral Hopper, please send an email to CHIPS editors at chips@navy.mil. We hope that you will enjoy reading about “Amazing Grace.”

Published CHIPS articles about Rear Adm. Grace M. Hopper
U.S. Navy Toughness: ‘Amazing Grace’ and namesake USS Hopper
Rear Adm. Grace Hopper Continues to Inspire Innovation
Looking Back: Grace Murray Hopper's Younger Years
Rear Adm. Grace Hopper — Accomplishments and Honors
Remembering Grace Murray Hopper: A Legend in Her Own Time
Memorial Editorial, CHIPS, April 1992
Letter to the Editor — Remembering Admiral Grace Hopper
Only the Limits of Our Imagination: an exclusive interview with Rear Admiral Grace Hopper from CHIPS AHOY July 1986
'Amazing Grace' Hopper: Thanks for the iPad!
USS Grace Hopper (DDG 70)
Computer Science Legend, Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, Posthumously Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom
Grace Hopper: Navy to the Core, a Pirate at Heart
NIST Exhibits at the 2016 Grace Hopper Women in Computing Conference
Naval Academy to Name Cyber Building After Computing Pioneer Rear Adm. Grace Hopper
On This Day in U.S. Navy History: USS Hopper
Rear Adm. Hopper and “Hopper Nation” Show Character, Courage, Commitment
Grace Hopper: Navy Technology Pioneer and Google Doodle
Grace Hopper..."mathematician, computer specialist, social scientist, corporate politician..."
The Information Resources Management College Celebrates the Legacy of Rear Adm. Grace Hopper
The Nanosecond
First Computer Bug Discovered

Capt. Grace Hopper, head of the Navy Programming Language Section of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OP 911F), discusses a phase of her work with a staff member, August 1976. Photographed by PH2 David C. MacLean. Note DECpack computer equipment at the right. Official U.S. Navy photograph from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Capt. Grace Hopper, head of the Navy Programming Language Section of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OP 911F), discusses a phase of her work with a staff member, August 1976. Photographed by PH2 David C. MacLean. Note DECpack computer equipment at the right. Official U.S. Navy photograph from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

The cover of the Chips April 1992 edition featuring Rear Adm. Grace Hopper at the Navy Micro Conference holding one of her famous props to demonstrate the length of a nanosecond with an inset of a much younger Lt. Cmdr. Hopper.
The cover of the Chips April 1992 edition featuring Rear Adm. Grace Hopper at the Navy Micro Conference holding one of her famous props to demonstrate the length of a nanosecond with an inset of a much younger Lt. Cmdr. Hopper.

The cover of the July 1986 Chips Ahoy magazine featuring Rear Adm. Grace Hopper and her famous quote, "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."
The cover of the July 1986 Chips Ahoy magazine featuring Rear Adm. Grace Hopper and her famous quote, "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."

Rear Adm. Hopper being interviewed by WTKR TV news in Norfolk, Virginia,  during the Navy Micro Conference 1986.
Rear Adm. Hopper being interviewed by WTKR TV news in Norfolk, Virginia, during the Navy Micro Conference 1986.

Rear Adm. Hopper holding a coil of wire to demonstrate the fleeting length of a  nanosecond during a lecture at the Navy Micro Conference. The nanosecond example was used to urge young naval officers and the nascent Navy computing community not to waste a single second.
Rear Adm. Hopper holding a coil of wire to demonstrate the fleeting length of a nanosecond during a lecture at the Navy Micro Conference. The nanosecond example was used to urge young naval officers and the nascent Navy computing community not to waste a single second.
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