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CHIPS Articles: Building a Foundation for the Future

Building a Foundation for the Future
“Amazing Grace” — the legacy of Rear Adm. Grace Hopper
By CHIPS Magazine - April-June 2002
Grace Murray (Hopper) was born in New York City on Dec. 9, 1906. She graduated from Vassar College in 1928 and received a doctorate in mathematics from Yale University in 1934. She was a member of the Vassar faculty from 1931 to 1943.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hopper attempted to join the military. The obstacles she encountered would have disheartened a less determined person. She was 34 years-old, which was considered too old for enlistment, and the government had declared her occupation as mathematics professor crucial to the country. Navy officials told her she could best serve the war effort by remaining in her teaching position.

Undaunted, she managed to get special permission and a leave of absence from Vassar. She also succeeded in getting a waiver on the weight requirement. Weighing in at 105 pounds, she was 16 pounds underweight for her height of five-feet six-inches when she joined the Naval Reserve in 1943.

Commissioned a lieutenant junior grade in 1944, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance and immediately became involved in the development of the then-embryonic electronic computer.

Lt. j.g. Grace Hopper started as the first programmer in 1944 on the Mark I (IBM ASCC). As a programmer, she used the Mark I to compute firing tables, and then wrote them into a series of instructions for the computer. In 1946, Hopper published a book, A Manual of Operations for the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator.

The Mark I, programmed with pre-punched paper tape, could perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and reference to previous results. It had special subroutines for logarithms and trigonometry and used 23 decimal place numbers. Data was stored and counted mechanically using 3,000 storage wheels, 1,400 rotary dial switches, and 500 miles of wire. Because of its electromagnetic relays it was considered a relay computer. Output was displayed on an electric typewriter.

Remarking on the Mark I, Hopper said “That was an impressive beast. She was 51-feet long, 8-feet high, and 5-feet deep.”

The Mark I took three to five seconds for a multiplication equation. It weighed five tons and contained almost 760,000 separate pieces. Lt. j.g. Hopper was enchanted with its performance, until the UNIVAC I came along—operating a thousand times faster. The Navy used the Mark I until 1959. Hopper continued to work on the Mark II and Mark III.

Leaving active duty at the end of World War II, Hopper was a member of the Harvard University faculty; from 1949 she was employed in private industry, but she remained in the Naval Reserve.

For more than the four decades to follow, she was at the forefront of computer and programming language development.

In 1966, Hopper attained the rank of commander. In August 1967, Cmdr. Hopper was recalled to active duty and assigned to the Chief of Naval Operations’ staff as Director, Navy Programming Languages Group. She was promoted to captain in 1973, commodore in 1983, and rear admiral in 1985, a year before she retired from Navy service.

Grace Hopper remained active in industry and education until her death in 1992. Hopper loved young people—they are open to new ideas and are enthusiastic about change, she said.

A pioneer in programming languages and technology development, Rear Adm. Grace Hopper was instrumental in bringing computer technology to Navy desktops and individuals. Hopper had an uncanny ability to predict the IT trends of the future. Many of her predictions came true during her lifetime as industry built more powerful, more compact machines.

Some of her more innovative ideas included using computers for predicting weather patterns and ocean waves, tracking the life cycle of crop eating locusts, and managing water reserves.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan awarded Hopper the prestigious National Medal of Technology at a ceremony in the White House. But Hopper considered her highest award to have been "the privilege and honor of serving very proudly in the United States Navy."

Despite the many technology advances that have taken place since her death, Hopper remains much admired and ever-popular with CHIPS’s readers.

Naval History and Heritage Command website:
Mary Bellis, “Inventors of the Modern Computer, The Harvard Mark I – Inventors Howard Aiken & Grace Hopper” – Homework Help Web site:

Lt. j.g. Hopper at the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 1946. Photo courtesy of the Defense Visual Information Center.
Lt. j.g. Grace Brewster Hopper (seated second from right), with Cmdr. Howard H. Aiken (seated center), who developed the first large scale digital computer, officially called the IBM automatic sequence controlled calculator, more commonly called the Harvard Mark I. The posed photo, with other members of the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project, was taken in front of the Harvard Mark I. Photo taken at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 1944. Photo courtesy of the Defense Visual Information Center.
The Mark I. Photo courtesy of the Computer Science Department of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
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