Grace Hopper: Who Is She and Why Does She Matter?
The age of computing began during World War II, with machines that were outrageously huge and slow by today’s standards. One of the first people to program these machines was a lieutenant named Grace Hopper. She went on to become one of the most important figures in the early decades of computing. She’s known as the inventor of the COBOL programming language and (rather less accurately) of the term “bug” as applied to computers. The best way to summarize her achievements, though, is that she was the one who demonstrated that “computing” could be more than just mathematical calculations and found many ways to tie it to the real world. Before the war, she was a mathematics professor at Vassar. Following Pearl Harbor, she decided to join the Navy. Her assignment after finishing Midshipmen’s School was a surprise; the Navy sent her to Harvard to work on programming the Mark 1, the first programmable electronic computer. Howard Aiken, who headed the project, was openly disappointed about being assigned a woman, but she quickly showed her worth. One of her innovations was using the machine to format printed output and generate page numbers. This seems normal today, but it was a break from the original idea of a computer just as a number cruncher. At Remington Rand in the fifties, she developed the idea of programming at a higher level, rather than writing individual machine instructions, as well as the idea that ordinary English words could make programs more comprehensible. She developed these ideas into the B-0 business programming language, first made available to customers in 1958, and later dubbed FLOW-MATIC. It wasn’t the first commercially available programming language; IBM claimed that distinction with FORTRAN in 1957. However, FORTRAN stayed close to the number-crunching paradigm, while B-0 aimed at the business market. The Conference on Data Systems and Languages (CODASYL) of 1959 led to a project to design a language that could be used for business and government applications. Following intense debate on what it should look like, Hopper’s faction won out with a design based upon FLOW-MATIC. The first successful demonstration of COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) took place in 1960, and for many years it was the world’s most widely used programming language. Hopper promoted the idea that anyone could use computers, including women. Her idea of using English-like syntax for programming languages eventually fell out of favor, but her vision of computing as something for all kinds of people and all kinds of problems transformed the industry and stands as her legacy. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, launched in 1994, memorializes her achievements and describes itself as “the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.” This year’s conference will be in Houston on October 19-21.