Inventing IT: The life and times of Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper
Wednesday 10 July 2019

It’s 1947 - Harry S. Truman is US president, Frank Sinatra is the nation’s heartthrob, the Chevrolet Fleetline is the coolest car around, and a loaf of bread costs 13 cents.

Grace Hopper is a Research Fellow at Harvard University, and is working on the Mark II Computer. A moth is found within the programming cards, blocking the mechanism from working.  Hopper removes the moth from machine – and this simple act sets in motion the popularisation of the term ‘debugging’ a computer.

If it was not for Grace Hopper, today there might not be smartphones and apps, computer games, software or even the internet. She was one of the most significant pioneers of computer programming of the 20th Century, the architect of  the fundamental principles of computation, by creating the first ‘programming language’.

Born Grace Brewster Murray in 1906 in New York City, she was the eldest of three children. A precocious and curious child, at the age of seven (and unbeknownst to her mother) she disassembled several household alarm clocks to figure out how they worked.

She graduated from Vassar College in 1928 and earned her Master’s degree from Yale University in 1930. She continued to study at Yale, completing her Ph.D. thesis on ‘New Types of Irreducibility Criteria’ four years later.

Hopper was enjoying a successful career as a young mathematics academic when World War II broke out. She immediately attempted to join the war effort by applying for the Navy – however she was rejected on the basis of her being too old (34!), and that her job as a professor was too valuable.

However, in 1943 she left the university and joined the United States Navy Reserve – one of the most male dominated organisations at the time. She was famously petite and had to get special exemption to enlist as she was below the minimum weight requirement.

During her time in the Navy she worked with early computers in the Harvard Computation Laboratory and later with Eckert-Mauchly Corporation, where she was able to continue with her innovative work on computer technology. 

Arguably one of Hopper’s greatest contributions to computing was her invention of the first computer complier, a program that translates written instructions into code that computers can understand.

Hopper’s idea to invent a new language that used entirely English words was initially dismissed - for three years.

When her idea was finally recognised, it lowered the barrier of entry for computing, and allowed non-mathematicians to operate the machines. For instance, instructions could be written with “if” and “that”, (rather than numerical codes) and then translated to instructions by the machine.

The invention of compiler opened the door to the invention of COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), and Hopper served as a key technical consultant on the committee that defined the language.

Hopper’s belief that computer languages should be understandable to the common person heavily influenced the development of COBOL, and it went on to be one of the moist ubiquitous languages to date.

Hopper continued to serve in the navy, rising through the ranks and eventually becoming an Admiral before retiring in 1986.  

She persisted to work throughout her retirement as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), until she died at the age of 85 in 1992.

Grace Hopper was a powerhouse of computational innovation and an undisputed trailblazer for women, both in her field and technology.

This July, for the first time ever, Australia will be hosting the Hopper Down Under Celebration in honour of her legacy. Created by women technologists, for women technologists, this inaugural conference is based on the Grace Hopper Celebration, aimed to empower women in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Australian National University and the College of Engineering and Computer Science is delighted to be supporting the inaugural Hopper Down Under celebration as a platinum sponsor.

The conference will be held in Brisbane QLD, and you can register to attend here.


By Ellen Parsons

Updated:  1 June 2019/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing