Portrait of Grace Hopper by James S. Davis (U.S. Naval Historical Center, photograph NH 96919-KN).
The amazing lady
My first introduction to Grace was through an episode of the David Letterman talk show (recorded in 1986).1 Here, the 79-years-old Grace was able to inspire me, both as a human, woman and computer scientist. There is something about her personality that is very warm and lovable - and she was admittedly the first old lady I’ve seen talking professionally about computers.
In the show, David asks her how she knew so much about computers, since she was put to work on Mark I at Harvard. Grace answer: “I didn’t, it was the first one”. She then sat down and outlined the entire manual for the computer.1
Grace was an US Navy Rear Admiral (lower half), and a speaker, known for handing out “nanoseconds” - wires that she cut to represent the maximum distance that light can travel (in vacuum) in that time. She used these nanoseconds to explain why satellite communication would take so long - there are many pieces of that length between us and the satellite.2
The queen of software
In 1947, Grace and her team found a moth in the Mark II computer, blocking its operation. The actual “debugging” that this led to, made her accredited for popularizing the term in computer science.2
Grace invented the first compiler for a computer programming language, which was operational in 1952. Grace then became the director of automatic programming, and the company released the compiler-based languages MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC. This was part of Hopper’s vision that computer programs should be more human-readable (in comparison to assembly or machine code). Hopper was also a technical consultant to the committee that defined the programming language COBOL.2
The computer girl
Grace appear in an 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan, under the headline “The Computer Girls”. At this time, computer programming was portrayed as a women’s work - and the number of female software developers grew steadily until 1987, when 42% of them were female (in the US).3
“It’s just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.” (Grace Hopper)4
Another woman in the article points out that she thought she would be pressing buttons, but instead, she was figuring out how to solve problems, and then instructing the machine how to do it.4
For different reasons, the rise of the personal computer led to a male stereotype and women dropped out from the field.3 However, women like Grace can inspire girls to aspire and prosper in the field of computer science. It is time for women to reclaim the field and give rise to another “age of the Computer Girls”4.
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