Friday, January 11, 2008

Amazing Grace

This candidate for my Friday lady is one that is new to me, too. I had no idea who she was until MM told me about her. (bonus points for him.). I was going to blog her LAST friday, but I had no power. So, here she is.

This is Grace Murray Hopper. She was born in New York City on December 9, 1906. (Celtic Rose, you now have a birthday friend). She was the eldest of three children. As a child, she loved gadgetry. When she was seven, the story is told that she took apart her own alarm clock to see how it worked. However, she couldn't figure out how to get it back together. So she took apart another. Then another. All in total, she gutted 7 alarm clocks. Her father, an insurance broker, suffered health problems, and ended up with both legs amputated. Her mother, a housewife, had a love of math, and passed it on to her daughter. Both parents believed that their daughters should have the same educational opportunities that their son had, and her father encouraged her not to follow the "traditional roles" that women followed. In highschool, she played basketball, field hockey, and water polo.
At 17 she went away to attend Vassar college. She gratuated Phi Beta Kappa with a BA in Mathematics and Physics. (whew!) In 1931, she began teaching at Vassar, where her starting salary was 800.00. While she taught, she furthered her education in Mathematics at Yale, where she erned an MA, and, then her Ph.D. She taught at Vassar until 1943. During this time, she married Vincent Hopper. Their marriage ended up in divorce, and he was eventually killed in WW II. They had no children.
After Pearl Harbor, Grace decided to join the military. She chose the WAVES, and was sworn into the Navy as a Lieutenant JG. Her first assignment was at Harvard, to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project. There, she became the first programmer on the Navy Mark I computer. It was 8 foot high, 8 feet wide, and filled with relays, switches, and vacuum tubes. She loved it. Once, the large computer went down, and the computer kept shutting down every few seconds. Grace, thinking quickly, stood there, all day, with her finger on the start button, and it kept the computer running. She was separated from active duty when the war was over, but stayed in the Navy reserves, and, eventually made it to the rank of Admiral. (pretty amazing.) While she was in the reserves, she continued her "computer" work with them, and worked on the early computers, Mark II and Mark III calculators. While she was working on the Mark II, some techicians discovered a moth in a relay, and she pasted the thing into a log book, it was a "bug" in the system. Many people think this was the origin of the phrase, but it wasn't. It was just possibly the first time the bug really *was* a bug. That log book is now at the Smithsonian. ( I wish I would have seen that while I was there.)
In 1949, she took a job at a computer corporation, and began to assist the team to develop UNIVAC I, another early computer, but called a compiler.When she was done with that, she returned to the Navy, and began working on validation software for the programming language COBOL. While doing this, she got the idea that programs could be written in a language that was close to English, rather than machine code. It is documented that COBOL was based on the philosophy of Grace.
During the 1970's she pioneered the implementation of standards for testing computer systems and their components. Especially for early programing languages like FORTRAN, and, of course COBOL. In 1973, after having tried to retire twice, and been "asked" to come back, she made the rank of Admiral in the Navy. In 1983, an episode of 60 minutes included an interview with Grace, and Rep. Phillip Crane saw it. He managed to get a special bill passed for Grace that actually advanced her to the rate of Commodore, (which is now renamed Rear Admiral, lower half. Lower half of what, I want to know?)Then she FINALLY got to retire. They held her retirement party on the USS Constitution. At her retirement, she was awarded the Defence Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non combat award possible. At the moment of her retirement, she was the oldest officer in the Navy, aboard the oldest Navy ship.
After her retirement, she didn't "retire". She was hired as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation. She stayed there until she died, at age 85, in 1992.
She was buried at Arlington National Cemetary with full military honors.
And to leave you with, a famous quote from Grace Murray Hopper
"It's easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission"
and another
"A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what a ship is built for". And speaking of ships, in 1996 the U.S.S. Hopper was launched, named for Grace, and her sister Mary was in attendance. It is the second ship in the history of the Navy to be named for a woman. It's nickname? Amazing Grace.


MM said...

YAY!! I get points... WHOO-HOO!!
Just so that everyone knows, Cobol and Fortran lead to the computer languages we now use today for a little something called "The Internet" :)

mielikki said...

Ahh! Thanks for those of us that are not computer minded. More points for you!
I really enjoyed doing this post, this woman was truly amazing.

Bubblewench said...

This was I think by far the coolest one so far! Loved it!

Cobol and Fortran - DUH MM!

Oh wait, not everyone is a geeker like us!

holly said...

oooooh i really liked this too. i did a post-graduate conversion course before entering programming, so i didn't get the traditional history-of for computers like a lot of others probably did. and yeah, i could have read it myself. there's a lot of things i *could* do...., thanks!

CrankMama said...

Wow I just got chills reading about her! What a great idea to post about amazing women who inspire you.

And I love the quote:"It's easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission" - definitely words I live by.

mielikki said...

BW- sadly, I am not as geeked as you, and MM. I didn't know about COBOL, or FORTRAN, for that matter. Sigh.

Holly- this one was pretty great. I love finding women I know nothing about.

Crankmama- welcome! I try to post about fascinating women every Friday, who I choose is usually whim; whomever happens to appeal to me that given Friday. Waiting a week to put up Grace Hopper was difficult, though!

sybil law said...


Mr. Kaos said...

Great post.

I remember Admiral Hopper's interview on 60 minutes. She brought a piece of string and explained that it represented the distance that light would travel in 1 nanosecond.

Again, great post.