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CHIPS Articles: Looking Back: Grace Murray Hopper's Younger Years

Looking Back: Grace Murray Hopper's Younger Years
By Elizabeth Dickason - June 27, 2011
Edited March 2017 from its original publication in 1986

Researching for this article led me to my local library where I found a delightful book that included some little known facts about Grace Hopper's early childhood. The book, "Grace Hopper, Navy Admiral and Computer Pioneer," by Charlene W. Billings, gives fresh insight into Hopper's formative years.

Born Dec. 9, 1906, Hopper was the oldest of three children, and named after her mother's best friend, Grace Brewster. Hopper described her childhood as a happy one, spending most summers at the family’s cottage on Lake Wentworth in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Hopper was followed in age by her sister, Mary, three years younger, and a brother, Roger, coming along two years later. They were typical kids of the era, playing kick-the-can, hide-and-seek and cops-and-robbers with their cousins during those lakeside summers.

Hopper often thought she took "the brunt of everything." In Billings’ book, she reminisces about the time she and her many cousins were caught climbing a tree. Because she was the highest up in the tree, she was accused of being the instigator. She lost her swimming privileges for a week. As young girls, Grace and Mary also learned needlepoint and cross-stitch at the request of their mother. Other hobbies Hopper enjoyed were reading and playing the piano.

Hopper was a very curious child. Once when she was seven years-old, her curiosity got the best of her. She decided to find out how her alarm clock worked. After an unsuccessful attempt at putting it back together, Hopper took apart seven more alarm clocks that she found throughout the house. When her mother discovered what she was doing, she was restricted to experimenting on one clock. She carried this innate curiosity throughout her life, having a weakness for gadgets and how they worked.

Hopper's father, Walter Fletcher Murray, was an insurance broker, as his father was before him. Hopper’s mother, Mary Campbell Van Horne Murray, had a love of mathematics, much the same way young Grace did. Hopper's maternal grandfather, John Van Horne, was a senior civil engineer for the city of New York, who often took his young daughter Mary on surveying trips.

Because of her ability in mathematics, special arrangements were made for Mary to study geometry, but she wasn't allowed to take algebra or trigonometry. In the late 1800s, it wasn't considered proper for a young lady to seriously study mathematics. Women’s mathematical skills were more properly relegated to keeping household accounts and managing the family's finances.

Because Walter Murray had hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis; both of his legs were amputated by the time Hopper was in high school. Fear of being a widow made Hopper's mother strive to be financially literate. Happily, Murray beat the odds and lived to be 75. He wanted the best for his children and instilled the drive and ambition that defined Hopper for the rest of her life. Murray believed his daughters should have the same educational opportunities as his son. Knowing he didn't have much money to leave them, Murray emphasized the importance of education so his children could be independent. Hopper said her father encouraged her to leave the usual feminine roles behind. She did just that, achieving advanced academic degrees, and fighting many obstacles to serve in the U.S. Navy.

As a young girl, Grace attended the Graham School and Schoonmakers School in New York City, both private schools for girls, where a large part of the coursework was designed to teach students to be ladies. Still, at Schoonmakers School, Hopper played basketball, field hockey and water polo.

Later during preparations for college, Hopper failed a Latin exam and when she applied to Vassar College, she was told she would have to wait a year to enter. Hopper’s family agreed, saying she was too young to go to college. In fall 1923, Grace became a boarding student at Hartridge School in Plainfield, New Jersey, finally entering Vassar the following fall at the age of 17.

In 1928 she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College with a BA in mathematics and physics and joined the Vassar faculty. While an instructor at Vassar, she continued her studies in mathematics at Yale University, where she earned an MA in 1930 and a PhD in 1934. 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 history files.

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 special permission and 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. Navy 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. Here, she learned to program the first large-scale digital computer, Mark I.

For 43 years, she proudly served the Navy she loved so dearly.

Elizabeth Dickason is a former CHIPS assistant and senior editor.

See the Yale University historical entries regarding Hopper, such as: .

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."
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