Influential Figures in STEM: Grace Hopper

We are celebrating the extraordinary people responsible for invaluable technological innovations that have helped form the world as we know it. Their legacy cements them all in history as some of the brightest and most influential figures who continue to inspire today.

This blog examines United States Navy Rear Admiral and computer scientist, Grace Hopper.

Grace Hopper’s Background

Grace Brewster Murray was born on the 9th December, 1906, in New York City. She was the oldest of three children and would often take objects (such as her alarm clock) apart to find out how they worked before putting them back together again.

A passion for mathematics ran in the family with Grace’s father and grandfather working with statistics all day in their work as stockbrokers. Her mother would accompany her own civil service engineer father on his surveying trips. Grace’s father was the one who encouraged both his daughters to pursue maths and science, believing that girls should be educated in order to make them as self-sufficient as boys.

With her natural ability and her parents’ support, Grace enrolled at Vassar College, New York, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree. She was accepted into Yale to study for a masters and a Ph.D. in Mathematics. After this, she began a teaching position as a professor at Vassar College.

Scientific Beginnings

It was the Pearl Harbour attack that started Grace’s desire to join the Navy. At the age of 34 she was considered to be too old, but people with her mathematical skills were desperately required. The Navy suggested that she should serve as a civilian, but Grace was determined to enlist. She was finally accepted into the U.S. Navy Reserve in December 1943.

A year later she was commissioned as a Junior Grade Lieutenant and assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University. During this time Grace’s team began work on the Harvard Mark I, an IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator an early prototype of the modern-day computer. Grace wrote a 500 page manual of operations for it, outlining the fundamental principles of computing machines. She also coined the word ‘bug’ to describe a computer malfunction.

Her Contribution to Science

After the war ended, Grace became a research fellow at Harvard. She joined the Eckert-Mauchly Corporation in 1949 where she was able to continue her pioneering work with computers. Some of her achievements include her involvement with UNIVAC’s (Universal Automatic Computer) creation (the first all-election digital computer), her invention of the first computer compiler (a program that translates written instructions into codes that can be read directly by computers) and her co-development of COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language). The latter enabled computers to respond to words as well as numbers.

As well as her significant contribution to making computers more sophisticated, Grace continued to lecture on the topic. She is estimated to have given up to 300 lectures a year. As well as this, Grace was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal in 1987, the highest decoration bestowed to those who did not participate in combat.

Her Legacy

In 1973, Grace was named a distinguished fellow of the BCS, the only woman to have ever held the title at this point). When she retired Grace continued to teach and inspire a new generation of computer programmers until her death on the 1st of January 1992.

Grace was a forerunner in computer science, with an astounding vision for their potential. She predicted that one day computers would be small enough to fit on a desk and ‘ordinary’ people who had no professional programming experience would be able to use them and incorporate them into their daily life.

In 2016, Grace was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Perhaps the most well-known aspect of Grace’s legacy is the Grace Hopper Celebration. This is an annual event that was co-founded by Dr. Anita Borg and Dr. Telle Whitney in 1994. Its intention is to celebrate the research and career interests and achievements of women in computing.

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Tatiana Marulanda