Women in technology seems to be something of a news topic lately, usually focusing on how difficult the male dominated culture is for women to thrive in. Maybe so. But exceptional people manage to thrive in difficult circumstances. And few were more exceptional than Grace Hopper, whose unusual career path saw her enter the Navy during World War II, at an age when many would be on the cusp of retirement.
Our post on the Navy Tactical Data System alluded to the Navy’s early interest in digital technology and harnessing the power of computers as an aid to the captain of a warship. Eventually, that effort would lead to today’s Aegis weapon system. Far more than simply a phased array radar system, Aegis is the computing environment that enables a modern warship to cope with the air, surface and subsurface threat environment in which it operates. Every story has a beginning, and Grace Hopper was present at the beginning of this one.
As a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, Hopper worked on the first computer, the Harvard Mark 1. And she headed the team that created the first compiler, which led to the creation of COBOL, a programming language that by the year 2000 accounted for 70 percent of all actively used code. Passing away in 1992, she left behind an inimitable legacy as a brilliant programmer and pioneering woman in male-dominated fields.
To pick a nit, she wasn’t a Rear Admiral when she was working on the Mk 1.
To be sure, RADM Hopper was a gifted mathematician, and later programmer. But more importantly, she was possessed of the skills and charm to share her vision to an often skeptical audience. She made the arcane understandable to the layman, and helped show how her work could help the Navy in a practical, immediate sense. You can design a terrific product, but if no one buys it, what have you really accomplished?
RADM Hopper’s contribution to the field of computing, at the heart of the Aegis weapon system, were recognized after her passing with the naming of an Aegis destroyer, the USS Hopper (DDG-70).