For Ada, with Grace

Until this morning, I didn’t know about Ada Lovelace Day, which seems to have resulted from a pledge/challenge by Suw Charman-Anderson.  The idea was to highlight women in technology.

Looking at my feedreader, my Twitter stream, and my Facebook page, I see quite a few women whose work hinges on some way in technology.  But the first name that came to mind is someone not all that well known any more.

In her later years, she was known as “Mother COBOL.”  Typing that reminds me that COBOL isn’t all that well known any more, either.

Grace Murray Hopper taught mathematics at Vassar in the 1930s while earning her PhD at Yale.  She resigned her position late in 1943 to join the Navy Reserve WAVES.  As a lieutenant with the Bureau of Ordinance, she was assigned to work on the Mark I computing machine, for which she eventually produced a 500-page manual of operations.

The Navy used the Mark I for gunnery and ballistics calculations.  It was 55 feet long, 8 feet high, and contained over 750,000 parts.  It was the predecessor to several other early computers such as UNIVAC.

Hopper invented the compiler–the program that translates computer programs into machine language.  She claimed that she did so because she was lazy; the compiler did the grunt work and allowed her to focus more on mathematics.  Her FLOW-MATIC compiler so greatly influenced COBOL that she’s known as the mother of COBOL.

In 1997, the Gartner Group estimated that 80% of the world’s business ran on COBOL.

After World War II, Hopper tried to transfer to the regular Navy, but was turned down because of her age (she was 38).  She remained in the Navy Reserve until 1966, retiring as a commander.  She was recalled to duty “for a six-month period” that lasted four years, and after retiring again was asked to return once more.

When she finally retired for good, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper at age 79 was the oldest officer in the Navy.  The ceremony was held on board the Constitution, the oldest ship in the Navy.

Hopper died in 1992, at 85, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

  • In 1969, Hopper won the Data Processing Management Association’s first “man of the year” award.
  • The Association for Computing Machinery has an annual Grace Murray Hopper Award for young computing professionals.
  • The USS Hopper, a guided missile destroyer, is only the second U.S. Navy warship named for a woman.

(I added the following very late in the day.)

Information about Hopper from the Naval Historical Center in Washington, DC, including this image.  It’s a page from the log book for the Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator used at Harvard University.  The entry, for Sept. 9, 1945, explains that a moth was found at Relay #70, Panel F. “First actual case of bug being found.”  Reportedly, the moth was taped into the log book, and the entry made, by Grace Hopper.

4 thoughts on “For Ada, with Grace

  1. Dave…

    Thanks for a nice post to celebrate Women’s History Month. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Women’s Museum is in Dallas, Texas and is well worth a side trip if you’re in the area.

    I recall getting a D on a paper in 6th grade because I wrote about Harriet Tubman and her amazing work with the underground railroad at the time of the Civil War, not considered a “suitable” topic at the time by my femal teacher. It’s good to think about things like this occasionally and ask yourself how your own blind spots about the value of certain content may influence what’s included in training. Yes, there can be SMEs involved, but a great instructional designer knows how to influence them in the “right” direction .


  2. Ann, I’ve read that Grace Hopper spoke often to students, encouraging them to learn about technology and how to apply it.

    She’s also the mother of one of my favorite analogies. Talking about the speed of light, and how it affects the speed of processing in a computer, she explained a nanosecond: it’s the time it takes something traveling at the speed of light to move down an 11-inch sheet of paper.

  3. Thank you so much for this post. I didn’t know about this day either, until someone twittered about it. What a treat it was to read some of the blog posts introducing me to some amazing women.

    As a woman in the tech field, I am a beneficiary of the headway these scientists, programmers and pioneers made. I stand, gratefully, on their shoulders.

    Dawn Carter

  4. Dawn, it was my pleasure. I’ve worked with technical people for a long time, and at its best, it’s not only a meritocracy, it’s a potentiality: you can strive for wahtever appeals to you. Just this past year, I came across Head First HTML, a skillful combination of engaging presentation and solid technical details, co-authored by Elisabeth Robson.

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