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Computer Scientist - Grace Hopper

Computer Scientist: Grace Hopper

Reading time: 5 minutes
Grace Hopper was a computer programmer who pioneered the development of the compiler, which paved the way for her creation of the COBOL computer programming language. Hopper was also a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. She was born in 1906 in New York City and died in 1992. In 2016, President Barack Obama posthumously honored Hopper with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Hopper's Early Life

Grace Brewster Murray was born on Dec. 9, 1906. She attended Vassar College, studying math and physics. She graduated from Vassar in 1928 and then attended Yale University, where she earned a master's degree in mathematics. In 1930, she married Vincent Foster Hopper. One year later, Grace Hopper started teaching at Vassar while also attending Yale to work toward her Ph.D. in mathematics. She earned this degree in 1934.

World War II

Hopper continued to teach as an associate professor at Vassar until she joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943. Hopper chose the Navy to follow in her grandfather's footsteps. In 1944, she was commissioned as a lieutenant. With her strong mathematical background, Hopper began working for the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project at Harvard University. As a part of this assignment, she learned how to program the Mark I computer.

Working With Computers

After World War II ended, Hopper continued to serve as a reserve officer in the Navy. She was also a research fellow at Harvard, which involved working with the Mark II and Mark III computers. During this time, a moth caused a short in the Mark II computer; Hopper discovered the problem and recorded it in her logbook, listing it as the "first actual case of [a] bug being found." This helped to popularize the term "computer bug."
Hopper moved to the private sector in 1949, first working with the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and later with Remington Rand. Hopper and her team created the first compiler for computer languages in 1952. A compiler translates instructions written in English into language that computers can understand. Her work then led to the development of COBOL, also known as Common Business Oriented Language.

Returning to the Navy

Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve in 1966. When she was 60 years old, she was recalled to active duty to work on a project that involved standardizing communication between different computer languages; she continued in the Navy for 19 years. When she finally retired in 1986, she was 79 years old. She had attained the rank of rear admiral, and she was the oldest officer in the service.

Later Years

Hopper always believed she would be bored in retirement if she didn't continue to work, so she worked for several more years in the computer industry. In 1991, she was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the first individual female recipient to receive this honor. On Jan. 1, 1992, Hopper died at age 85 in Arlington, Virginia. She was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Hopper's Legacy

The guided missile destroyer USS Hopper was named in her honor by the Navy; it was commissioned in San Francisco in 1997. The University of Missouri honored Hopper by adding a computer museum in her name on its campus. This museum is commonly referred to as "Grace's Place," and it has early computers and components on display. Hopper's legacy also includes the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, which is held to encourage women to be involved in the world of computing. In addition, the Association for Computing Machinery bestows the Grace Murray Hopper Award to recipients. On her birthday in 2013, Google paid tribute to her with a Google Doodle. And in 2017, Yale named one of its residential colleges in her honor.

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