Grace Hopper: Mother of Digital Communication and Navy Veteran

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was an intriguing woman whose knowledge and passion for some of the most complicated computing systems of her time essentially created the personal computer.

According to Elizabeth Dickason of CHIPS, a Department of Navy magazine, “[Hopper] was described … as a ‘feisty old salt who gave off an aura of power.’ This held true in her dealings with top brass, subordinates and interviewers – always interested in getting to the bottom line.”

In her 60-some odd years as a mathematician and computer programmer, Hopper’s work built the foundation for digital communication as we know it today.

Early Life and Military Roots

Grace Hopper

Born to Mary Campbell Horne and Walter Fletcher Murray on December 9, 1906, Grace Brewster Murray Hopper was a New York native who wanted something more than what the times typically prescribed for a woman: childbearing and housework.

Those who knew her as a child described a particularly curious youngster who was fascinated by how things work. She came from a long line of service; her ancestors fought in the American Revolutionary War, so it perhaps came as no surprise that she later chose a path in the military.

In 1928, Hopper graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in New York, earning a B.A. in Mathematics and Physics. She continued her graduate studies in mathematics at Yale University, and in 1930, Hopper received her Master’s degree and got married to Vincent Foster Hopper. She accepted a teaching position at Vassar in 1931 and remained in that post until 1943, when she made a decision that would prove pivotal to her career.

Making WAVES

At the outbreak of WWII, Hopper signed up to join WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), a part of the U.S. Naval Reserve. Her application was initially rejected because she was deemed too old and too thin per enlistment standards. Determined, Hopper obtained a waiver for these requirements and was sworn into WAVES in 1943, the same year she earned her PhD. She graduated first in her class from the Reserve’s training school.

Commissioned as a Junior Grade Lieutenant in 1944, Hopper started on her first assignment at Harvard University’s Bureau of Ordinance Computation. She worked with Naval Reserve officer Dr. Howard Aiken on the Harvard Mark I, a 51-foot-by-8-foot giant “electromechanical calculator” that would become the predecessor to today’s personal computers.

Mark I was the first operational machine capable of automating complex mathematical computations. Hopper was responsible for monitoring the programs and her success with the Mark I and later the Mark II and III earned her a Naval Ordnance Development Award in 1946. She even inadvertently coined the term “computer bug” when she found a trouble-making moth in Mark I’s circuitry system. “From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it,” she remarked in a 1984 New York Times interview.

Invention of the Compiler

Hopper’s experience with the Mark series led her to question the efficiency of computer programming codes at the time. In 1949, she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Corporation to further her vision of a common computer language. There she introduced the concept of a “universal compiler”—a bridge between English commands and codes that could be recognized by the computer. This led to the development of COBOL, a standardized computer language, and translator manuals for converting non-COBOL languages.

“Amazing Grace” Hopper

Affectionately referred to as “Amazing Grace,” Hopper held more than 40 honorary doctoral degrees and had a U.S. warship—the USS Hopper—named after her. In 1973, she became the first woman to be recognized as a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. Later in 1985, she was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral.

Hopper passed away on January 1, 1992 and was buried with full honors in the Arlington National Cemetery.

The crowning moment of her career, said Rear Admiral Hopper to Chips, was her military service: “I’ve received many honors and I’m grateful for them; but I’ve already received the highest award I’ll ever receive, and that has been the privilege and honor of serving very proudly in the United States Navy.”

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command