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CHIPS Articles: Only the Limits of Our Imagination

Only the Limits of Our Imagination
Exclusive interview with Rear Adm. Grace Hopper from Chips Ahoy July 1986
By CHIPS Magazine - April-June 2002
"It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."
- Rear. Adm. Grace Hopper

Rear Adm. Grace Hopper was a staunch supporter of CHIPS. She often gave encouragement to one of the early editors, Diane Hamblen. Hopper was a familiar face at the Navy Micro Conferences in the 1980s, sponsored by then CHIPS' publishers, Navy Regional Data Automation Center Norfolk and the Department of the Navy Information Technology Umbrella program of Navywide IT contracts, offering, for example, the Zenith 148 and 248 computers.

Hopper was well-known to the Navy's small community of IT providers, and as a leader she embodied an innovative, yet no-nonsense approach to IT development.

With the popularity of the new Kindle Fire and online publications, Hopper's views about newspapers and books may seem outdated, but many of her observations about defense budgets, a paper-free department, efficiencies, streamlining staffs, and getting the most bang for the buck from technology prove to be right on target. Hopper's message still inspires because she knew that good ideas, smart people and efficient processes can overcome any challenge.

Despite the many technology changes that have occurred since her death, she remains popular with readers so we continue to maintain a Grace Hopper link from the CHIPS website: In celebration of CHIPS' 30th anniversary, we are featuring an exclusive interview with Hopper conducted by Hamblen just prior to Hopper's involuntary retirement from naval service in 1986.

Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, an early visionary in the computerization of the Navy, passed away Jan. 1, 1992, but her legacy lives on. As a pioneer in computer programming and coinventor of COBOL, she was known as the "Grand Lady of Software" and "Grandma COBOL."

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 deterred 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 wrangled 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.

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

Leaving active duty after the war's end, Hopper was a member of the Harvard University faculty and, from 1949, was employed in private industry. She remained in the Naval Reserve attaining the rank of commander before retiring at the end of 1966.

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."

Hopper was promoted to captain in 1973, commodore in 1983, and rear admiral in 1985, a year before she retired from naval service. She remained active in industry and education until her death.

While IT was still in its infancy, Hopper taught at the DoD Computer Institute, the forerunner to the Information Resources Management College of the National Defense University. She constantly advised young officers to learn as much as they could about microcomputers, hardware and software and to educate their bosses about technology.

The USS Hopper (DDG 70) is named in her honor.

CHIPS AHOY: Will Gramm-Rudman make serious inroads into our purchasing power for new ADP equipment? [Bill enacted in 1985, when Congress was under intense public pressure to immediately reform the budget and reduce the $200 billion budget deficit. Gramm-Rudman reduced and in some areas froze defense spending.]

Hopper: I don't know what Gramm-Rudman will do to us. But I suggested to Adm. Sutherland [Rear Adm. Paul Sutherland Jr., Commander, Naval Data Automation Command]… that we should threaten to turn off all the data processing computers. That should fix them! They won't know where anybody is or where the ships are. They won't know where anything is. They won't know what they have or what they are committed to. They can't run the Navy without our computers.

CHIPS AHOY: If Gramm-Rudman cuts into our ADP money, how long will our current micros last? Should managers get rid of their older models?

Hopper: Well, micros don't break down. Manufacturers just come up with newer models with better capabilities. But activities will have to upgrade because they'll need the new abilities.

CHIPS AHOY: Will we ever see a paper-free environment? What benefit will it be to us?

Hopper: Not until we get the younger generation in charge, we won't. At present, we're putting on paper a lot of stuff that never needed to be on paper. We do need to keep records. But there isn't any reason for printing them. The next generation growing up with computers will change that. When I say the next generation, I'm thinking about my grandnephew and grandniece. They're two and four.

One form of paper that will remain is magazines, newspapers and books. Those we'll keep, but not all this junk we pile up. There is one guy at the Pentagon who gets a printout about a foot thick every day. Then he takes yesterday's [printout] and puts it in a locked room. I know darn well he can't read that pile in 24 hours. What he must look for is the biggest numbers or the least numbers, and the computer could do it for him…

CHIPS AHOY: What about the people who are losing their jobs because of the increased use of computers?

Hopper: They're not losing their jobs because of computers. It's because the whole structure of organizations is changing. For example, after World War II we went overboard on management. We had MBAs and lawyers and tremendous staffs. With the recession, people began to find out they didn't need all that, and they turned more toward operations. A lot of those staff people were totally unnecessary… Changing organizational structures dislocates people not computers or other new equipment.

CHIPS AHOY: Are we relying too much on the computer?

Hopper: Either you use computers or you can't do the job. Look at banking. You used to have a loan, a checking account and a savings account. That's all you could have. Look at what you can have now. They couldn't compute all those things for all those individuals and for all those individual services if they didn't have the computers… All that personalized service depends on the computer. There aren't enough workers to cope with it. If AT&T and the telephone company didn't use computers there wouldn't be enough people to route calls.

CHIPS AHOY: What's next for the computer?

Hopper: We should be building a weather computer. We can't use a general-purpose computer. A weather computer could take all the information we have and make better, long-term predictions. But until we have more powerful computers, we can't do long-term forecasting. The computers have to be faster, store more data and access more data. We don't have that capability now, and we won't see it until someone realizes it can be done. NASA has a computer, which consists of an array of 128 by 128 computers, 16,384 processors all in one computer… We don't have one to find out about those waves at the bottom of the ocean that the Navy wants to study either.

CHIPS AHOY: What happens to the roll of the tactician? Will World War III have a tactician the caliber of General Patton now that we're letting the computer play the game?

Hopper: The computer will probably do it better. The computer's decisions will come from those very people. Computers don't do any thing. People have to tell them what to do… It's the person that feeds the information and the data in and says what you're going to do with it that counts… The tactician would say that under particular circumstances we do this, and under other conditions we do that. That's the underpinning of artificial intelligence… You have the knowledge of the best people at your fingertips…

CHIPS AHOY: Will everyone have quick access to information?

Hopper: Ultimately, in the next generation — when our bright youngsters take over. I watched third grade students in Independence, Mo., write programs in BASIC and debug them. They'll be able to handle the computers when they grow up… Kids will be using computers instead of memorizing their multiplication tables. This will give them more time to solve word problems, which is more useful. That's the real problem. Not the arithmetic but the interpretation. There is a generation coming that will be different. We're already beginning to get the 17 and 18-year-olds in the Navy, who will have had computers.

CHIPS AHOY: Do you think the current popularity of micros is just a fad?

Hopper: No, the big mainframes are going to disappear. In fact, I intend to scuttle them. They'll be too slow. We'll build systems of computers… and they'll all call each other up and talk… The big pressure is going to be on faster answers. There never was a good reason for putting inventory and payroll on the same machine. The only reason you did it was because you could only afford to own one computer. That's no longer true. The micros are as big [in terms of processing capacity] as mainframes were only 10 or 12 years ago. Back then a big mainframe had 64k. That's smaller than today's micros by a long shot.

CHIPS AHOY: Is there a limit of what micros can do for us?

Hopper: They'll only be limited if our imaginations are limited…

CHIPS AHOY: Why are you such a supporter of CHIPS AHOY?

Hopper: I like the fact that it reviews hardware and software totally impartially. CHIPS AHOY has never been attached to any particular computer. Almost all of the other magazines are either attached to one of the manufacturers or else they have in-house a particular computer, which slants everything [they are reporting].


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.
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