Grace Hopper- Someone you should know.

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).

9 thoughts on “Grace Hopper- Someone you should know.”

  1. Admiral Hopper also accurately foresaw the utter massive use of information sent and received at a high speed and its effect. I watched her on a VHS tape 20 years ago and am amazed how some of the things she talked of then manifest themselves now.

  2. RADM Hopper use to carry a 1 ft. length of wire with her. She would hold it up and say this is a nanosecond (i.e. the time it would take an electron to traverse the length of the wire).

    1. I see that she had that in the Letterman clip. I should have watched that first, but Letterman is such a dick.

  3. And she’s the source of the term “debugging”, coming from when her staff removed a fried moth from a jammed relay.

  4. When I lived in San Diego, I had dinner with her. Well, me and 1,000 other programmers. She was a true visionary. Showed us about a foot length of string and called it a Nanosecond. Said in the future, if you want more computer power, you will hook up more computers. “After all”, she said, ” if you need more oxen to pull your wagon you don’t grow a bigger ox! “

  5. I met her at work in 1970/71. She stopped by the console of the mainframe computer I was operating.
    In my job, we were experimenting with a technology to parallel four mainframes. That was why she was there. Cutting-edge, back then.
    She was tiny! There was fire in her eyes. Sharp as a tack.
    We shook hands and I stepped back to let her at the console.
    As soon as she laid-hands on it, the machine crashed with a “hardware memory parity fault.”.
    I told her;
    “It’s afraid!”
    We laughed.
    Never saw her again…

  6. She had a lot of humility. This little frail woman, in a Rear Admirals uniform. She said that she checked into a hotel once in uniform and people thought she was a bellhop!

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