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.
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.
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 1941 and 1942.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II, Hopper wanted to serve her country by joining the military. The obstacles would have deterred a lesser person. She was 34, which was considered too old for enlistment, and the government had declared her occupation as mathematics professor as crucial. Navy officials told her she could best serve the war effort by remaining a civilian.
Undaunted, Hopper managed to get a leave of absence from her teaching position at Vassar. She also was able to persuade the Navy to issue a waiver on the weight requirement. Weighing in at 105, she was 16 pounds underweight for her height of five-feet, six-inches. Hopper persevered and was sworn into the U.S. Naval Reserve in December 1943 and attended the UNSR Midshipman’s School-W at Northampton, Massachusetts. Upon graduation, she was commissioned lieutenant (junior grade) and ordered to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard where she learned to program the first large-scale digital computer, Mark I.
In 1946, she resigned 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 I 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.
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 Hopper to demonstrate that this idea was feasible to her skeptical colleagues, but she persevered.
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 with full military honors.
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.
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."
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 developments in computer science would continue to accelerate leading to smaller, more user-friendly computers and limitless computing power.
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. Hopper dedicated her life to the Navy she loved so well serving for 43 years.
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 and indefatigable energy — “Amazing Grace.”