Women in History: The IT Legacy Grace Hopper

I just finished my 2011 IT Workforce Capability Assessment Survey sponsored by the Federal CIO Council and the Office of Personnel Management.  The purpose of the survey is to make an assessment of various competencies in the Federal workforce and identify opportunities going forward.  Being a seasoned veteran of IT and CIO, my technical competencies were mostly in the category of legacy.   What the heck?  I checked off that I was an expert in FORTRAN.  One of our NASA CIOs, Mike and I joked that it must be a relevant competency because FORTRAN 77 helped us get this far, right?

I started thinking about the good old days when I was a happy systems programmer – a programmer’s programmer.  One of my early assignments was to install new versions of the COBOL and FORTRAN compilers.  So, with my mind recalling things like compilers, assemblers, and machine code and with March being Women’s History Month, it is more than appropriate to discuss the life and legacy of Vice Admiral Grace Hopper.

Born in 1902, she was a pioneer in computer science with accomplishments stay relevant decades after her death.  She earned a PhD and began teaching mathematics at Vassar University but left her position as an Associate Professor to join the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES).  After being commissioned as a lieutenant in 1944, she joined the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University.  She was the third person to join the research team that worked on the IBM Mark I – the computer hat heralded the age of the modern computer.  Her first assignment was to compute the coefficients of the arctangent series in a relatively short period of time. 

She was best known for her contributions that led to the invention of the compiler.  The compiler allowed use of English-like instructions to computers rather than the complex numeric machine code.  It is reported that she said that she did this because she was lazy – preferring to do the real work of the mathematician rather than programming in machine code.   Her work strongly influenced much of what we still see today in the area of digital computing: subroutines, formula translation, relative addressing, the link loader, code optimization, and symbolic manipulation. 

I had the pleasure of seeing her many times early in my career.  As a mathematician and systems programmer, I noticed that there were few women in either field and even fewer who were in both.  Her diminutive stature was in stark contrast to the heights she reached with her sassy irreverence.  One of my favorite quotes, widely reported to be about her invention of COBOL, is “but Grace, then anyone would be able to write programs!”  Exactly! She helped make the mysterious extremely technical world of the early computers more accessible to regular folk.  To help people like generals and admirals understand why satellite communications took so long, she would hand out pieces of wire just less than one foot long – the distance that light would travel in one nanosecond.  She would also present a coil of wire nearly one thousand feet long which represented a microsecond.  Later, she passed out packets of pepper which she called picoseconds. 

She passed away on New Year’s Day in 1992 – I’m sure I was programming in REXX then.   Vice Admiral Hopper left a legacy that paved a path for many women and men to follow.  In 1969, she won the first “man of the year” award from the Data Processing Management Association.   I appreciate the opportunity to pause for a few nanoseconds during Women’s History Month to acknowledge her contributions.  

Note: This is my 100th blog.  Thanks for reading. 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

7 thoughts on “Women in History: The IT Legacy Grace Hopper”

  1. Hi Linda,
    How thoughtful of you to remember Grace Hopper by writing such an inspiring and interesting tribute to her. Thank you so much!
    Best regards,
    Linda Holcombe

  2. Linda,
    Thank you so much for remembering Grace Hopper!
    Wonderful tribute to her.
    Best regards,
    Linda H.

  3. Thanks so much for the information on Vice Admiral Hopper. She used her gifts well. I’m in awe of what she accomplished during her long life.

    Again, thanks for sharing.


  4. I was told by my college COBOL professor many decades ago:

    Grace Hopper coined the phrase, “theres a bug in the program” when a moth was lodged between an early computer’s transistors and kept the computer from operating properly.

  5. I stood at her retirement ceremony as a midshipman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. A great person and innovator.


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