Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Grace Hopper: Pioneer in Computer Science - My Ada Lovelace Day Tribute

I struggled a bit looking for a topic for my Ada Lovelace Day pledge blog post to be about a woman in technology that I admire. I could not think of anyone off the top of my head and some quick searches didn't bring up anything that I thought suitable. But as it came down to Ada Lovelace Day, the push was on to get off my bum and do some digging. One name caught my eye and was then again suggested by one of my friends on Twitter: Grace Hopper.

It's surprising that as a woman on the edge of IT for many years that I hadn't heard of Grace Hopper, as she developed the first compiler for a computer programming language. Yes a woman was the a real pioneer in this field. It's not a real surprise when you look at her strong academic career in Mathematics and Physics: BA (Phi Beta Kappa) from Vassar and Masters and PhD from Yale -- all in the late 1920's and early 30's/

During World War II, Hopper joined the Naval Reserves and went on to graduate first in her class at the officer training school. In the Naval Reserves she served on the staff of the Mark I, the first large-scale automatic digital computer in the US. In 1949 she took a job at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation as a senior mathematician and joined the team developing the UNIVAC I, the first commercial computer produced in the US. in the early 50's the company was taken over by Remington Rand and this is where Hopper worked on her original compiler. According to Wikipedia: "COBOL was defined by the CODASYL committee which extended Hopper's FLOW-MATIC language with some ideas from the IBM equivalent, the COMTRAN. However, it was her idea that programs could be written in a language that was close to English rather than in machine code or languages close to machine code (such as assembly language), which is how it was normally done at that time. It is fair to say that COBOL was based very much on her philosophy." (Seems typical to me that a woman would aim to have the programming language closer to English and more human friendly.)

Later Hopper returned to the Naval Reserves and continued to work on development and standards and eventually achieved the rank of Captain. Later she was awarded the rank of Commodore by special Presidential appointment. Commodore was later renamed Rear Admiral, Lower Half.

She spent her final years as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation, where she travelled widely lecturing on the early days of computing and her career.

In 1996 the US Navy launched USS Hopper (DDG-70), an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, nicknamed "Amazing Grace" in her honour.

Hopper once said, "If you do something once, people will call it an accident. If you do it twice, they call it a coincidence. But do it a third time and you've just proven a natural law!" http://www.hopper.navy.mil

When I was struggling in high school to decide what to select as a major in college, my mother said, "Something to do with math, there aren't many girls in Math" and I had done very well in match in high school, but I wanted to be a writer or a filmmaker. Many, many times in the years since I have wished that I had gone into math and computer science, as that is the industry that I later found myself involved in - one way or another. Perhaps if I had read about Grace Hopper in high school, I would have gone that way.

Visit the Grace Murray Hopper page in Wikipedia from more details on her life, career and honours received.

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