Mar 24

Ada Lovelace Day: Grace Hopper

adalovelaceday09, ald09, cobol, grace hopper
10:34pm on Tuesday 24th March, 2009

When I signed the pledge for Ada Lovelace Day and agreed to publish a blog post on an influential woman in technology on March 24th, it seemed like a good idea. Easy enough to achieve, and something I could contribute to, however indirectly, for my daughters.

This was a rather rash decision, as it turns out; now on the day itself, I find myself struggling to find a suitable subject.

It is not as if I do not know any women working in technology. There are plenty of women that I have met or worked with; off the top of my head, any one of Carolyn, Leisa, Vero, Lea, Veerle, Glenda or Molly would probably make a perfectly good subject. But for me the sticking point is the “in technology” part—being a web designer (or usability person, or content person, or just a web maven in general) just doesn’t feel like it’s really “technology”.

So I figured I would buck the trend that has seen people like Ann and Christian blog about their contemporaries, and instead look back at someone who had an impact in the tech sector when it was in its infancy.

The Mother Of Computers

“Amazing” Grace Hopper was a maths graduate and teacher at Vassar College in NY. The first woman to ever earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Yale, she left her comfortable job during the war to volunteer with the US Navy, and it was there that she made her mark on the future of computing.

Hopper was one of the first programmers to work on the new Harvard IBM Mark I computer, a 50-foot-long behemoth capable of a staggering three calculations per second (!), and after the war she opted to stay on at Harvard and continue working in the nascent programming field. It was while working on the new UNIVAC computer that she developed the first ever language compiler, which later became the programming language COBOL. Hopper’s idea was that programs could be written in a language closer to English than machine code or assembly language.

Later she drove the implementation of standards for testing computer systems and languages (yay, standards!) that were later adopted and administered by the National Office of Standards and Technology.

Aside from the delicious irony of her win as the first “Man of the Year” award from the Data Processing Management Association in 1969, Grace Hopper also has an annual award, a ship, a road, a park and a data processing centre named after her. The official advisory council on the recruitment and retention of women at Microsoft is named “Hoppers” in her honour, and she has been called “The mother of computers”—but, if anyone has heard of her, it is usually because of one particular event that occurred relatively early in her career.

The first computer bug

While working at Harvard on the IBM Mark II, a moth was found to be stuck in one of the relays that formed part of the machine, causing her to remark that they were “debugging” the system. While it is not certain that the term computer bug is solely attributable to Hopper, she certainly brought the term into popular usage. (The moth is still on display in the group’s log book at the Smithsonian.)

Grace Hopper died in 1992 at the age of 85. Almost until the end of her life, she was active lecturing and speaking at universities and computer seminars on the importance of change. As she said, “the most damaging phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way.’”

“Our young people are the future. We must provide for them. We must give them the positive leadership they’re looking for ... You manage things; you lead people.”

[Sources: Wikipedia, Biographies in Naval History. Photos from Wikipedia.]

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  1. Bruno Daniel's Gravatar

    Bruno Daniel at 2:21pm on 3rd April, 2009 #

    I’m not very into the history of computer programming (or any history at all, to be honest) but this post was really nice to read! I’ve heard a lot about Ada Lovelace, but nothing about Grace Hopper until now. Thanks for linking “the moth” picture, it was fun to actually see the first “computer bug”.

    Kudos from Brazil o/

  2. Dave Hunt's Gravatar

    Dave Hunt at 5:02am on 18th March, 2010 #

    Ada Lovelace Day is someone every woman should look up to. She was able to break down barriers.