WERE SHE alive today, Grace Hopper would surely be too busy and focused to dwell on her own Google Doodle.
Too much to do, and discover, and understand. Throughout her long career, Hopper the naval officer, like time, marched on.
“Amazing Grace” Hopper would have been 107 today, and Google pays tribute with a home-page cartoon of the young computer pioneer at work. The Doodle prompts us to celebrate the great woman and mathematician and trailblazing programmer, even if she wasn’t the type to make a fuss over such things.
Hopper once told CBS newsman Morley Safer she was not one for nostalgia. The “60 Minutes” interview was in 1983, when Hopper — who un-retired multiple times — was the oldest woman in the Armed Forces at age 76.
It wasn’t just looking back, but also a refusal to push forward, that the ever-colorful Hopper had no time for. As a symbol of that battle against human complacency and resistance to change, she is said to have explained: “That's why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise."
But for a day, at least, Google lets us turn back the hands to remember “Grandma COBOL’s” groundbreaking achievements.
Hopper received a doctorate in mathematics at Yale and was teaching math at Vassar (her alma mater) when she joined the Naval Reserve. It was 1943, she was 37, and she felt called. As Hopper once told late-night host David Letterman in an eminently entertaining interview, while describing the national effort during World War II: “There was a time when everybody in this country all did one thing … together.”
Hopper was sent to Harvard’s Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project, where she was one of the first programmers on the Navy’s Mark I computer — a 51-foot-long, 8-foot-tall mass of relays and vacuum tubes that was on technology’s cutting edge. Hopper is quoted as saying: “It had 72 words of storage and could perform three additions a second."
Hopper would work on Harvard’s Mark II and III computers, as well, and go on to work on the UNIVAC I computer. She led the team that invented COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), as she pushed for computers to communicate by language instead of numbers.
She also once discovered a problematic dead moth in a computer; she de-bugged the computer, saved the specimen and would be credited with popularizing the term “bug in the system.”
In the ‘70s she was promoted to captain, and a decade later was promoted to commodore. She became a rear admiral in 1985 — attaining the same rank as, she once noted, her great grandfather.
Grace Brewster Murray was born in New York in 1906. Rear Admiral Grace Hopper would die Jan. 1, 1992, and be buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Five years later, the guided missile destroyer Hopper was commissioned in San Francisco; Hopper’s name also graces the Anita Borg Institute’s Celebration of Women in Computing conference (of which Google is a sponsor).
Today, we salute Hopper and her scientific gifts — even if we have to turn back the clock to do so.