Thursday, April 9, 2015

Grace Hopper, software pioneer

In early 1974, as I was entering the building of my first apartment, River House in Arlington, Virginia, by the Pentagon, I saw across the lobby the elevator closing on what seemed like an incongruity: a petite older gray-haired lady in a blue Navy captain's uniform with the four wide gold stripes on the cuff. Unthreatening sweetness vs. authority.

River House, S. Joyce Street, Arlington, Virginia, and Grace Hopper Park (2011)
 Several weeks later, I, a US Department of State employee at the time, took a two-week Introduction to Computing course at the Department of Defense Computer Institute (DODCI) at the Navy Yard in neighboring Washington, DC. Speaking the first afternoon was the elevator woman, Navy Captain Grace Hopper (December 6, 1906- January 1, 1992), a pioneer in computing software. Memorable that afternoon was her brilliant (and well-known) analogy of a "nanosecond" and the speed of computing and electronic communication: an 11.8 inch (29.97 cm) length of thin colored telephone wire representing the maximum distance electrons travel in one-billionth of a second at the speed of light (in a vacuum). Captain, and eventually Rear Admiral, Hopper always carried with her a bundle of "nanoseconds", and we were each gifted with our own. A short video of her discussing this in a class, not unlike one I attended and of the same vintage, can be found at; she explains nanoseconds to David Letterman at

The next day, on my way to catch a bus to the Navy Yard, I ran into Hopper in the lobby of our apartment building. I introduced myself, telling her I was in the computer class. As her Navy driver pulled up, she generously offered me a ride in her government car. I wish I remembered the details of our conversation! I only lived in the building a month or two more, and our subsequent interactions were just passing greetings.

Hopper received her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Vassar College, one of the pre-eminent women's colleges of the 20th century before admitting men in 1969. (I went to Smith College, another "Seven Sisters" school and still all women; maybe we talked about women's higher education in her limo?) After getting a PhD in math from Yale, Hopper taught at Vassar until joining the Navy during World War II.  She was a programmer on the Navy's Mark I electro-mechanical computer at Harvard; after the war, she worked on UNIVAC (the second general-purpose electronic computer according to Wikipedia) at Remington Rand. In 1967, she returned again to active duty with the Navy .

Hopper's life and achievements were chronicled this January (2015) in the short (16 minutes) ESPN FiveThirtyEight documentary, The Queen of Code. During Women's History Month in March 2015, National Public Radio interviewed the documentary's director ( Also during WHM, the National Science Foundation highlighted several pioneering women in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and math), connecting these "names you should know" with current female scientists supported by NSF. They included seven women who worked on the ENIAC computer (the first general-purpose electronic computer) during World War II. While Hopper's Mark I was Navy-funded housed at Harvard, ENIAC was supported by the US Army and situated at the University of Pennsylvania. Both computers were used in conventional ballistic and atomic bomb research calculations. The women working on ENIAC were not named in official documents or photographs at the time; they have since been inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame. If you have seen the movie, Imitation Game, about British WWII cryptography, you will be aware of the difficulty and prejudice that talented women in mathematics faced for a long time in being accepted seriously and having access to the same job opportunities as men.

Hopper's best-known achievement is the programming language, COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language). It was designed to be a language that could be shared among different computers and be more like regular English, therefore more accessible to non-scientists. I personally see it as the beginning of making computing more user-friendly. I never had to use COBOL. In a previous blog, I mentioned that my short experience with FORTRAN, in 1969, was one factor influencing my decision to be an undergraduate history major. (The DODCI course in 1974 did not teach coding, but covered systems analysis, applications, flow charts.) My serious foray into coding was during my geology Master's degree at Dartmouth College, the birthplace of BASIC programming language. Without the cumbersome formatting statements of FORTRAN and, like COBOL, more like regular English, BASIC was much more transparent to me and easier to use. I learned to enjoy "debugging" programs (Hopper is credited with originating the computing terms "bug" and "debugging"). Dartmouth required geology grad students to be able to write a moderately-complex computer program and that was easily solved by taking either Aqueous Geochemistry or Clay Mineralogy whose final semester projects were programs. Subsequently, my first introduction to coal petrology was programming, in BASIC, the collection of liptinite epifluorescence spectral data through an analog/digital converter that connected a microscope to an Apple 2 computer (this was 1982 at Southern Illinois University; lipid-rich liptinites do glow in UV and blue light). On desktop computers at that time, one had to be very thrifty with program size. I was limited to 512K (that's KILObytes) for the program steps and data collected within the program. And now I complain that my iPhone does not have enough GIGAbytes for my photos!

The Apple 2 did not have the "desktop" display and file folder management system we know today, just a line entry typing screen. Word processing at Dartmouth in the early 1980's was through commands in BASIC on time-sharing terminals. We got our first home Macintosh, with MacWrite, in about 1986. The current 21st-century user interface on a computer, smart phone, computer game, and in word processing, graphics, spreadsheet and other applications is layers above the programming language that creates what we see on the screen. This makes digital technology accessible to all; Grace Hopper's programming vision was an essential early step.

Plaque, Grace Murray Hopper Park, So. Joyce Street, Arlington, VA (2011)
 Addedum (1/12/16): Admiral Hopper mentioned in the State of the Union address. Additional biographical information: 

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