Rear Admiral Grace “Amazing Grace” Hopper, 1906-1992

by Allan Jenkins on March 24, 2009

For Ada Lovelace Day:

Anecdote: Suitland, Maryland, 1983. I am in the US Navy, a Cryptology Technician (O) 3rd Class, coming off watch from the basements that are the bowels of US Navy Intelligence.

I meet in the hall my commanding officer, a Navy captain, and the director of Naval Intelligence, a commodore.

And they are bending over, like storks, to hear the every word of a fast-talking, septuagenarian lady in a captain’s uniform.

As I pass, murmuring “good morning ma’am, good morning sirs,” she looks up, smiles, and says “good morning! How are you, sailor?” And then actually stops to await an answer. Which I have to provide, to the chagrin of the commodore, my captain and me.

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Anecdote: September 9, 1945.  Confronted with a failed computer – the world’s largest –  the team sets out to find the problem. They found it deep in the insides of what was pretty much the world’s only supercomputer. They fixed it. A Lieutenant (junior grade) of the US Navy logged it:

“Relay 70 Panel F (moth) in relay.”

TheFirstComputer-Bug-MarkI-book-d3 Laconic, as bug reports go, but it was the first “bug” report – until then, bugs had not been a problem. Asked why it had taken so long to get the computer started, the lieutenant replied, “We had to debug it first.young-hopper

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Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, USNR, 1906-1992, was the recorder of the first computer bug in 1945 and the kind captain who wished me a good morning in 1983.h96920k

She graduated Vassar, 1928, in mathematics; Yale, 1934, Ph.D. in mathematics.

She was the “mother of COBOL.”

Perhaps her best-known contribution to computing was the invention of the compiler, the intermediate program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer. She did this, she said, because she was lazy and hoped that “the programmer may return to being a mathematician.” Her work embodied or foreshadowed enormous numbers of developments that are now the bones of digital computing: subroutines, formula translation, relative addressing, the linking loader, code optimization, and even symbolic manipulation of the kind embodied in Mathematica and Maple.

She was a cold warrior… she had every faith that our (US, NATO) computing power would ensure our victory over the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. She foresaw that computing strength was a force multiplier.

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{ 4 comments }

Carol Johanningsmeier March 25, 2009 at 12:36 AM

I remember when she came to Suitland that day. She was a neat lady.

Philip March 25, 2009 at 1:11 AM

Splendid.

Donna Papacosta March 25, 2009 at 4:26 AM

Thanks for this tribute to Grace Hopper and your own story. I never tire of hearing about her. What a great lady.

Allan Jenkins March 26, 2009 at 12:06 AM

This whole post got away from me… I had posted it to hit the deadline, but had meant to get back and polish… ouch.

@Philip and Donna — glad you liked. Hopper was an original… and appearances were so deceiving. A year later, she gave a short talk at Naval Intelligence HQ. Again, she comes in looking like your grandmother, but as soon as she opens her mouth, you realize the entire room of geeks (and we were pretty much geeks, as Carol can attest) is struggling to keep up.

@Carol Wasn't it great? Hopper just wandering the halls, pretty much, sticking her head into this and that? I was a CT, not a DP, so I had little idea how "cool" she was. But the Data Processors were practically swooning.

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