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CHIPS Articles: Remembering Grace Murray Hopper: A Legend in Her Own Time

Remembering Grace Murray Hopper: A Legend in Her Own Time
By Elizabeth Dickason - June 27, 2011
Edited March 2017 from its original publication in 1992

Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, who dedicated her life to the Navy, passed away Jan. 1, 1992. She was 85. As a pioneer in computer languages and co-inventor of COBOL (common business-oriented language), she was known as the “Grand Lady of Software,” “Amazing Grace” and “Grandma COBOL.” Hopper is remembered for her now famous saying, "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."

It's only fitting that Grace Brewster Murray was born between two memorable events — the Wright Brothers' first successful power-driven flight in 1903—and Henry Ford's introduction of the Model T in 1908. Taught by her father at an early age to aim for whatever she wanted to achieve, Hopper's life consisted of one professional success after another, including the significant contributions she made in computer languages and software development while working in industry and in her service to the U.S. Navy.

Hopper's early diligence and hard work paid off when in 1928 at the age of 22 she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College. She then attended Yale University, where she received an MA degree in mathematics and physics in 1930 and a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934. Hopper began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931 — where her first year's salary was $800. She remained at Vassar teaching until she joined the United States Naval Reserve in December 1943.

Upon graduation from UNSR Midshipman’s School-W at Northampton, Massachusetts, she was commissioned a lieutenant (junior grade) and ordered to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University. There she became the first programmer on the Navy's Mark I computer, the mechanical miracle of its day. Hopper's love of gadgets caused her to immediately fall for the biggest gadget she'd ever seen, the 51- foot long, 8-foot high, 8-foot wide, glass-encased mound of bulky relays, switches and vacuum tubes called the Mark I. This miracle of modern science could store 72 words and perform three additions every second.

Hopper's love affair with the Mark I ended a few short years later when the UNIVAC I, operating a thousand times faster, won her affections.

In 1946, Hopper was released from active duty and joined the Harvard Faculty at the Computation Laboratory where her work continued on the Mark II and Mark III computers for the Navy. In 1949, she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia — later called Sperry Rand — where she designed the first commercial large-scale electronic computer called the UNIVAC I.

Hopper changed the computer industry by developing the Bomarc system, later called COBOL (common-business-oriented language). COBOL made it possible for computers to respond to English words rather than numbers. Hopper often jokingly explained, "It really came about because I couldn't balance my checkbook." [Editor’s Note: By the 1970s, COBOL was the “most extensively used computer language” in the world, according to Yale University’s website article “Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992): A legacy of innovation and service.”]

Hopper is credited with coining the term “bug” when she traced an error in the Mark II to a moth trapped in a relay. The bug was carefully removed and taped to a daily logbook. Since then, whenever a computer has a problem, it's referred to as a bug.

Hopper reluctantly retired from the Naval Reserve with the rank of commander at the end of 1966 due to U.S. Navy age restrictions. She was recalled to active duty in August of 1967 for what was supposed to be a six-month assignment at the request of Norman Ream, then Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy for Automatic Data Processing. After the six months were up, her orders were changed to read her services would be needed indefinitely. She was promoted to captain in 1973 by Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., Chief of Naval Operations. In 1977, Hopper was appointed special advisor to Commander, Naval Data Automation Command (NAVDAC), where she remained until she retired in 1986.

In 1983, a bill was introduced by Rep. Philip Crane (D-Ill.), who said, "It is time the Navy recognized the outstanding contributions made by this officer recalled from retirement over a decade and a half ago and promote her to the rank of commodore." Crane became interested in Hopper after seeing her March 1983 "60 Minutes" TV interview. He would never meet Hopper, but after speaking with several people regarding Hopper’s naval service, was convinced that she was due flag officer status. The bill was approved by the House, and at the age of 76, she was promoted to commodore by special Presidential appointment. Her rank was elevated to rear admiral in November 1985, making her one of the few women admirals in the history of the U.S. Navy at that time.

Sept. 27, 1985, the Navy Regional Data Automation Center (now the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station), San Diego, broke ground on a 135,577 square-foot data processing facility, The Grace Murray Hopper Service Center. The building contains a data processing center as well as training facilities, teleconferencing capabilities, telecommunications and expanded customer service areas. A room-sized museum contains numerous artifacts, awards and citations that Hopper received during her lengthy career. The guestbook contains the names of several prominent individuals paying tribute to the computer pioneer. There is also a Grace Murray Hopper Center for Computer Learning at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where she spent her childhood summers.

Hopper was 80 years-old when she retired again involuntarily from the Navy. The ceremony was held in Boston on the USS Constitution, fulfilling Hopper's final request before retirement. Three hundred friends and admirers and 30 family members attended to watch the culmination of her distinguished 43-year Navy career.

As then Secretary of the Navy John Lehman said in his remarks, "I'm reminded of that famous story by P.T. Barnum. About the turn of the century, his principle attraction, the human cannonball, came to P.T. Barnum and said, `Mr. Barnum, I just can't take it any longer. Two performances a day and four on weekends are just too much. I'm quitting.' Barnum said, `You can't possibly quit. Where will I find someone else of your caliber?' They [U.S. Navy] realized Hopper was irreplaceable."

In Hopper’s retirement speech, instead of dwelling on the past, she talked about moving toward the future, stressing the importance of leadership. "Our young people are the future. We must provide for them. We must give them the positive leadership they're looking for... You manage things; you lead people."

At Hopper’s retirement she received the highest award given by the Department of Defense — the Defense Distinguished Service Medal — one of the innumerable awards and honors that she received during her lifetime from the Navy, academia, professional organizations, and industry.

Other awards include the Navy Meritorious Service Medal and the Legion of Merit. Hopper also received the first computer sciences "Man of the Year" award from the Data Processing Management Association (DPMA) in 1969. Other achievements include, retiring from the Navy as a rear admiral at 79, the oldest serving officer at that time, and being the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University. As Capt. Grace Hopper, head of the Navy Programming Section in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OP-911F), she was the first woman in the Naval Reserve to be called back to active duty.

Retirement didn't slow Hopper down. Shortly thereafter, she became a senior consultant at Digital Equipment Corporation where she was active until about 18 months before her death. Hopper continued in much the same manner as she did when she was in the Navy, traveling on lecture tours around the country, speaking at engineering forums, colleges, universities and computer seminars passing on the message that managers shouldn't be afraid of change. In her opinion, The most damaging phrase to [progress] is: “We've always done it this way.”

Hopper said many times, "I always promise during my talks that if anyone in the audience says during the next 12 months, 'But we've always done it that way,' I will immediately materialize beside him and haunt him for the next 24 hours and see if I could get him to take a second look." Always embracing the unconventional, the clock in Hopper’s office ran counterclockwise.

The admiral’s favorite age group to address was young people between the ages of 17 and 20. She believed they know more, question more, and learn more than people in what she called the "in-between years," of ages 40 to 45. She always placed very high importance on American youth and education.

Hopper often said, "Working with youth is the most important job I've done. It's also the most rewarding." This attribution fits Hopper’s character perfectly since she spent her entire adult life teaching others.

Hopper was a big hit with attendees at the Navy Micro Conferences in the 1980s. She loved to tell the story of how the conference started based on her famous quip, "It's always easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."

Here's the story: A Sailor in the Pacific Fleet built a computer aboard his ship. A picture of the computer appeared in Navy Times where a rear admiral saw it. The admiral wrote the Sailor a letter of encouragement. The Sailor then decided to answer the rear admiral directly, telling him exactly what was wrong with computers in the Pacific Fleet and what could be done using microcomputers. (The computer infrastructure at that time was built around bulky mainframe computers.)

As events evolved, the Sailor was transferred to the Navy Regional Data Automation Center (NARDAC) in Norfolk, Virginia, now called Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic, where his technical expertise could be fully utilized. He was part of the team that launched the first microcomputer conference in 1982.

A five-point plan was developed that centered around the microcomputer contracts [issued by the Navy at that time]. The conferences provided a forum where users could exchange information and lessons learned and learn how to operate the new microcomputers and applications being rolled out across the Navy.

What started off as a small seminar for 400 people working in naval computing that first year, grew into a full-blown conference, averaging more than 1,000 attendees every year. It wasn't until the third year of holding the conference that it was approved by the Navy.

CHIPS magazine grew as a result of this same five-point plan. In an effort to communicate and connect with even more microcomputer users, NARDAC Norfolk leadership decided to start a newsletter in 1982, then called Chips Ahoy. Neither the Navy Micro Conferences nor CHIPS magazine might have been started if someone didn't take the initiative first, and worry about asking permission later, as Admiral Hopper advised.

Grace Hopper was a keynote speaker for the conference in its earlier years, drawing standing-room-only crowds. Although Hopper talked about familiar themes, people were fascinated by her. Hopper’s legendary lectures challenged management to keep pace with changes in technology. The Navy Micro Conference morphed into the Connecting Technology Conferences in the 1990s, still alternating between the east and west coasts, and still stressing Hopper's unique message: Be innovative, open-minded and give people the freedom to try new things.

Due to her talent as an educator, Hopper enchanted her audiences with tales of the computer evolution and her uncanny ability to predict the trends of the future. Many of her predictions came to fruition during her lifetime as industry built more powerful, more compact machines and developed the operating systems and software that allowed average individuals to own and operate a computer.

Some of Hopper’s more innovative ideas include using computers to track the lifecycle of crop eating locusts and building computers for weather forecasting, managing water reserves, and tracking the waves at the bottom of the ocean. She also thought every Navy ship should have a computer that the crew could learn to use.

I never met Grace Hopper, but I did see her at Navy Micro '87. She passed by with an entourage, smoking an [unfiltered] Lucky Strike cigarette as she often did. You could hear people whispering, "There she is," as she passed by.

My first impression of her was that of a friendly, grandmotherly-type woman who looked almost frail. Those words don't exactly describe the public side of Grace Hopper. She was described by one reporter as a "feisty old salt who gave off an aura of power." This held true in Hopper’s dealings with top brass, subordinates and interviewers — she was always interested in getting to the bottom line.

One dream Hopper didn't fulfill was living to the age of 94. She wanted to be here Dec. 31, 1999, for the “New Year's Eve to end all New Year's Eve parties.” Hopper said she wanted to be able to look back at the early days of the computer and say to all the doubters, "See? We told you the computer could do all that!"

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery

Elizabeth Dickason is a former CHIPS assistant and senior editor.

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.
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