‘Amazing Grace’

'Amazing Grace'

Silicon Valley’s digital-based companies owe a huge debt to
Grace Murray Hopper, a computer pioneer who laid the foundation for
how today’s software programming languages are constructed. Her
many contributions to our modern high-tech age were the subject of
a South Valley talk given on March 17.
Silicon Valley’s digital-based companies owe a huge debt to Grace Murray Hopper, a computer pioneer who laid the foundation for how today’s software programming languages are constructed. Her many contributions to our modern high-tech age were the subject of a South Valley talk given on March 17.

Kurt Beyer, author of “Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age”, told Hopper’s story in a lecture hosted at the Villa Mira Monte House by the Morgan Hill branch of the American Association of University Women. The talk will be broadcast this weekend on public access TV in the South Valley.

Beyer first learned about the remarkable Hopper when he was a 13-year-old boy at his sister’s graduation at The College of William & Mary.

“The commencement speaker was this old woman who was wearing a naval uniform, and I thought that was kind of strange because as the president of William and Mary was introducing her, she sat there knitting,” Beyer said. “But then the second strange thing that happened was, when she stood up, she started to speak about the future – a computer future and an information age that I had no idea what she was talking about.”

That commencement speech created in Beyer an interest in Hopper’s story that led to his researching and writing a biography of her fascinating life.

Hopper was born in 1906 in New York City, and joined the United States Navy Reserve in 1943 to serve as a WAVE during World War II. After undergoing training at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School in Northampton, Mass., she began work at the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. It was the start of her computing career.

In 1949, she began her employment as a senior mathematician at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. There she worked on the team that created the UNIVAC 1, America’s first commercially-built computer. In the 1950s, she developed the first compiler for computer programming languages. She also came up with the idea of making programming languages independent of machines, thus leading to the development of COBOL, which is considered by some to be the first modern programming language. She came up with the concept that computer programs could be written in a language that approximated English rather than in machine code, thus simplifying the process of programming. Perhaps her biggest claim to fame is coming up with the term “debugging” to fix computer problems – a term inspired after an actual moth was removed from a computer.

Later in her life, she received many honors for her contributions to computer technology. When she retired from the Navy in 1986, she received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. In 1987, she became a Computer History Museum Fellow Award Recipient. In 1991, she received the National Medal of Technology. And in 1996, the USS Hopper was launched, named in her honor. Its nickname is “Amazing Grace.”

Hopper died on New Year’s Day, 1992. She was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

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