Hopper, Grace Brewster Murray

views updated

Hopper, Grace Brewster Murray

(b. 9 December 1906 in New York City; d. 1 January 1992 in Arlington, Virginia), naval officer, mathematician, and computer expert.

Hopper was one of three children of Walter Fletcher Murray, an insurance broker, and Mary Campbell Van Home, a homemaker. Her father urged his children to obtain a college education and then work for a year to prove they could support themselves. Hopper graduated from Hartridge School in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1923 and then studied physics and mathematics at Vassar College, earning a B.A. in 1928. On 15 June 1930 she married Vincent Foster Hopper. They had no children and were divorced in 1945. Hopper continued her studies at Yale University, earning an M.A. in 1930 and a Ph.D. in 1934. She taught mathematics at Vassar from 1931 to 1943.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Hopper wanted to serve the federal government. At thirty-five years of age she was too old to enlist in the U.S. Navy, and she weighed only 105 pounds instead of the required 121 pounds. Obtaining waivers, however, she joined the Women’s Reserve of the Naval Reserve and attended the Naval Reserve Midshipman’s School for Women in Northampton, Massachusetts, from which she graduated first in her class. On 27 June 1943 she was commissioned a lieutenant junior grade and was billeted to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University.

At Harvard, Howard Aiken, who was working on a doctorate, had written a paper on how a calculating machine could be built. Advised to do so, he contacted the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) and in 1939 signed a contract to build the Mark I computer, which used punched cards and performed three additions every second. With the Mark I, calculations that would have taken six months to do by hand could now be done in a day. Upon reporting to Harvard’s Cruft Laboratory, Hopper was assigned to make the calculations, using the Mark I computer, for firing naval guns, rockets, and atomic bombs. Under Aiken’s direction she also wrote a book describing how to operate the Mark I. Once, when the machine shut down, Hopper, shining a flashlight at the electric relays, found a moth in between them and ejected it— the first case of “debugging” a computer.

The Mark I computer used only one language, and code numbers told it how to perform a particular calculation. New programs called for new codes, which were punched holes on paper tape. In the summer of 1945 work began on building the Mark II computer. Completed in three years, it was five times faster than the Mark I.

The maximum age at which women could transfer to the regular navy after World War II was thirty-eight. Hopper was forty when the war ended. She declined an offer to teach at Vassar, choosing to remain at Harvard as a research fellow in engineering science and applied physics. She also remained in the Naval Reserves. In 1949, however, she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia as senior mathematician. There she agreed that computers could be adapted to service businesses and participated in their development. First came the Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer (EDVAC), a small binary machine, and the Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC), which used high-speed magnetic tape instead of punched cards. Hopper provided program languages that could be used by persons who were not mathematicians or “computer nuts.” Remington Rand bought Eckert-Mauchly and then merged into the Sperry Company (later UNYSIS), but Hopper remained with the company until 1971. For Remington Rand she served as director of automatic programs development.

Although IBM built scientific computers, the company needed program language development. In 1954 IBM produced an automatic programming language in FORmula TRANslation (FORTRAN), useful to scientists but not to businesspeople. Meanwhile Hopper originated the idea that computer programs could be written in English if computers used symbols that stood for the letters of the alphabet. These programs were known as compilers. She developed Flowmatic, a language useful to businesses for tasks such as automatic billing and calculating payroll. Of the three main languages used by American computers in 1957, Hopper’s was the only one that used English commands.

At the Western Joint Computer Conference held in San Francisco in March 1959, military as well as civilian representatives sponsored efforts to produce a composite computer language. The result was Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL), applicable to both UNIVAC II and RCA’s 501 computer. The Department of Defense advised U.S. businesses to use COBOL, which worked on almost any business computer.

Advised by the chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel that she should retire from the Naval Reserve because she was sixty years old, Hopper sadly did so, with the rank of commander, on 31 December 1966. Shortly after, the National Bureau of Standards, the Office of Management and Budget, and the General Services Administration, who set the standards for federal information processing, called on Hopper to standardize different versions of COBOL for the navy, and she happily returned to duty on 1 August 1967. Among other accomplishments, she produced the navy manual Fundamentals of COBOL (1969). In 1973 she was promoted to captain. Her literary output totaled six books or articles, and one of her best achievements was advising teachers on how to convey computer literacy to all students. She also published over fifty papers on software and program languages, including the instructions for using the computers and compilers that she created.

Of the many awards Hopper received, she especially valued the first, the Naval Ordnance Development Award of 1946. Other awards came from UNIVAC and the Legion of Merit. In 1973 she was the first woman and the first American designated a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. President Gerald Ford awarded her a U.S. Medal of Freedom. She was also a prime instigator in the creation of a computer center at Brewster Academy, a small private school in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where she had spent her summers as a youth. On 15 December 1983 President Ronald Reagan attended her promotion to commodore. On 27 September 1985 the Regional Data Automation Center in San Diego was named for her, and on 8 November 1985 she became a rear admiral, the third female admiral in the U.S. Navy. She was the first woman to receive the National Medal of Technology, presented to her by President George Bush. She retired from the navy in 1986. In spite of her seventy-nine years, she became a senior consultant for Digital Equipment Corporation and represented the firm to schools and businesses. Affectionately known to subordinates as “Amazing Grace, Grandmother of the Computer Age,” she died of natural causes at the age of eighty-five. At her request, she was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, with full military honors. In 1994 the navy announced that a guided missile destroyer would be named the USS Hopper.

An excellent short biography is Charlene W. Billings, Grace Hopper: Navy Admiral and Computer Pioneer (1989). Nancy Whitelaw, Grace Hopper: Programming Pioneer (1995) is written for young readers and contains clear definitions. Among many short sketches are Amy C. King and Tina Schalach, “Grace Brewster Murray,” in Women of Mathematics, ed. by Louise S. Grinstein and Paul J. Campbell (1987) ; and Robert Slater, Portraits in Silicon (1987). An obituary is in the New York Times (3 Jan. 1992).

Paolo E. Coletta

About this article

Hopper, Grace Brewster Murray

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article