10 February 2022

The inspirational lady who taught us to debug computers

If you are a regular reader of our blog, you’ll know that at the tail-end of last year we published an update on sexism in IT, based on our survey conducted last summer.  This showed that there is a slight improvement in attitudes towards women in the IT world, but also that there is still a long way to go.

I wonder what Grace Hopper would make of this?  And if you haven’t heard of Grace Hopper, then it’s worth reading on. She was, in my view, one of the most inspirational women in the history of our industry.

Born in 1906, Hopper was a pioneer in two major areas – computing and the military.  At that time in the USA, fewer than 20% of graduates were women and in the UK the figure was much lower. Grace graduated in 1928 in mathematics and physics, then, in 1930, received her Master’s (in mathematics) from Yale before completing her PhD, again at Yale, in 1934 (in mathematics and mathematical physics). This (the 1920s and 30s) was an early golden era for females in higher education in the US and the numbers of women earning PhDs wasn’t matched again until the 1980s.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she tried to enlist in the US Navy, but was rejected on the grounds of her age: she was then only 34. Her tiny size also counted against her, but undeterred she joined the US Women’s Naval Reserve.  There, she worked on a computation project at Harvard University and worked with another computer pioneer, Howard Aiken, who had developed the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator. This was better known as the Mark I, one of the earliest electromechanical computers. As one of the first three computer programmers, Grace wrote the 561-page user manual for the Mark I and was responsible for programming the Mark I and punching machine instructions onto tape.

Her military service, both in the Second World War and during the Cold War, saw her involved in a wide range of top-secret calculations — computing rocket trajectories, creating range tables for new anti-aircraft guns, and calibrating minesweepers. She also worked for the US Army and ran the numbers used by John von Neumann in developing the bomb dropped on Nagasaki which brought an end to the war.

After the war remained at Harvard, becoming a research fellow in engineering sciences and applied physics. There, she helped develop the Mark II and Mark III computers and one evening in 1945 while working on the Mark II, Grace and her colleagues encountered a problem. On taking the machine apart they found a large moth. Although the term “bug” had been used since the nineteenth century to describe a mechanical malfunction, Hopper was the first to refer to a computer problem as a “bug” and to speak of “debugging” a computer. However, but for their decision to use this term, perhaps we would be talking today about “computer moths” and “de-mothing!”

Her career after the war was simply amazing.  In 1952, her programming team developed the first computer language “compiler” called A-0, which translated mathematical code into machine-readable binary code. This eventually made it possible to write programs for multiple computers rather than a single machine. Subsequently, her team developed Flow-Matic, the first programming language to use English-like commands. It became clear, as the number of computer languages grew, that there was a need for a standardised language for business purposes. This was COBOL (“common business-oriented language”), introduced in 1959 as the first standardized general business computer language. Many people were involved in its invention, but Grace Hopper promoted the language and its adoption by both military and private-sector users. Her biographer Kurt Beyer calls her “the person most responsible for the success of COBOL during the 1960s.” By the 1970s, COBOL was the most extensively used computer language in the world.

All through this time, Hopper had remained a Navy reservist, but in 1966 age restrictions forced her to retire from the Navy as a commander. Seven months later, however, at the age of 60, she was recalled to active service to standardise the Navy’s multiple computer languages. Nicknamed “Amazing Grace” by her subordinates, Grace remained on active duty for 19 years. During this time, a Congressman from Illinois saw a TV interview with her in 1983 and successfully introduced a bill to have her promoted to the rank of commodore. At the age of 79, Grace Hopper retired as a Rear Admiral and the oldest serving officer in the US Armed Forces.

During her life, she received more than 40 honorary degrees and many scholarships, academic chairs, awards, and conferences are named in her honour. In 1972 she received Yale’s Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal. In 1991, the President made her the first individual woman to receive the National Medal of Technology, the country’s highest technology award. In 1996 the US Navy named a guided missile destroyer the USS. Hopper after her.

When she received the National Medal of Technology, she was quoted as saying, “If you ask me what accomplishment I’m most proud of, the answer would be all the young people I’ve trained over the years; that’s more important than writing the first compiler.” Her gifts as a communicator were legendary. Throughout her career she placed great value on documentation and being able to explain complex situations and problems to different audiences. In a 1980 interview, she said, “I’ve come to feel that there is no use doing anything unless you can communicate.”

Grace Hopper looked to the future and believed that advances in computer science would not slow down.  In 1980, she said, “I think we consistently - continually - underestimate what we can do with computers if we really try.” Above all, her belief that computers have to be user-friendly if they are to continue to be of use to the widest numbers was a driving force throughout her career.  She worked up until a year before her death in 1992 and was buried with full military honours in the Arlington National Cemetery in the United States.

Will we see her like again?  Well, perhaps.  You can start today by encouraging your children to take up computing…

Nikola Kelly, MD, Be-IT Resourcing and Be-IT Projects

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