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An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Grace Hopper

Jul 11, 2018 by

Grace Hopper

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Grace Hopper was truly an exceptional woman. She lived from 1906-1992 and was both a computer scientist AND a Navy Rear Admiral. Where did she grow up and what do we know about her childhood?

Grace Brewster Murray was born on December 9, 1906, in New York City. She demonstrated her intellectual capabilities at an early age, disassembling alarm clocks at the age of seven to learn their operating principle. She received an excellent education at the Hartridge Preparatory School in New Jersey, and applied to Vassar College at the age of 16.

Vassar did not admit her, however, because her test score in Latin did not measure up to its standards. Undaunted, she applied the following year, and Vassar then accepted her. In 1928, she graduated with degrees in Mathematics and Physics, having earned Phi Beta Kappa honors in the process.

2. Where did she go to graduate school, and what did she study?

After receiving her Bachelor’s Degree, Grace Murray chose to pursue a graduate program in Mathematics at Yale. Two years later, she received her Master’s Degree from that school, and then began work on a doctoral program in Mathematics. That same year, she also married a New York University professor named Vincent Hopper, and took his last name. While working on her doctorate, she taught Mathematics at Vassar.

In 1934, she received her Ph.D. from Yale, having written her dissertation on Irreducibility Criteria. For the next seven years, Hopper taught at Vassar, and received promotion to associate professor in 1941.

3. Her career in the Navy must have been spectacular. Can you summarize her major accomplishments?

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hopper attempted to enlist in the US Navy. That branch of service attracted her, because she had a great-grandfather that had risen to the rank of rear admiral. Unfortunately, the Navy rejected her, citing her age and the importance of her work to the war effort. Once again, she refused to accept no for an answer, and attempted to enlist in 1943.

Reversing its earlier decision, the Navy decided to honor her request, and she became a Midshipman in the Naval Reserve. Assigned with other midshipmen to a course of study at Smith College, Hopper finished first in her class. Based on her performance, the Navy assigned her to a research project taking place at Harvard University.

Her contributions to that effort led to other equally important assignments, and the quality of her work earned her a steady string of promotions. This culminated with her earning the rank of rear admiral (lower grade). Hopper remained in the Navy until she retired at the age of 79 in 1986.

Grace Hopper sits at the UNIVAC keyboard in 1960. Credit: Smithsonian Institution

4. How did she first get involved with computers and what is she known for?

As previously noted, the Navy assigned Hopper to work on a secret project in 1944. She soon learned that this project focused on building an electromechanical computer. Known as Mark-1, this device performed calculations at a rate hitherto unimaginable. Once the war ended, the Navy offered her the opportunity to remain at Harvard to continue her work on the Mark-1, but Vassar also told her that it would give her promotion to full professor if she returned to the faculty.

Hopper decided to continue her work with computers. In 1949, she took a position in the private sector, and helped develop the UNIVAC computer. A few years later, she played a major role in the creation of a computer language known by the acronym COBOL. Computers still use this language for data processing.

Having remained in the Naval Reserve, Hopper received an assignment in 1967 to head the Navy’s Programming Language Group. Finally retiring from the Navy in 1977, she then went to work as a consultant for the firm Digital Equipment Corporation. By the time of her death on January 1, 1992, Hopper had thus become one of the foremost names in computer science.

5. How did she impact other women of her time period? As a role model or a mentor?

Today, we recognize Grace Hopper as one of the most important figures in the history of electronic computation, but her rise to fame took place incrementally. Other women preceded her in Ph.D. programs, for example, and women had started to serve in the US military twenty-five years prior to her enlistment in 1943. But once given the chance to demonstrate her impressive talents in the field of electronic computation, Grace Hopper steadily grew in stature both inside and outside the military.

While few American women would probably have been able to identify her prior to the 1960s, her increasing stature made her a role model for new generations of women looking for ways to make their mark on American society.

6. What have I neglected to ask?

Grace Hopper felt that her greatest contribution came from her encouraging people entering the field of electronic computation to take risks. When asked about her life, she would usually tell the story that when presented with ideas by young colleagues, she would say “try it,” and then give them unwavering support. This anecdote suggests that, like many great Americans, she took greater satisfaction from helping others than she did from focusing on her own accomplishments.

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