Grace Hopper: The Amazing Grace, “Mother of Computing

Grace Hopper, born on December 9, 1906, in New York City, was reported to have had an avid interest in engineering from a very young age. At age six, Grace dismantled alarm clocks to understand how they worked. At 17, Hopper was admitted to Vassar College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics in 1928. She went on to obtain a master’s degree and a PhD in mathematics and mathematical physics from Yale University.

Following the United States’ entry into World War II, Hopper took leave from her job at Vassar and was sworn into the United States Navy Reserve (Women’s Reserve) in 1943. She was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University, where she worked for Howard Aiken, the developer of the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator—also known as the Harvard Mark I computer. Here, Hopper and her colleagues worked on top-secret projects to help with the war efforts, including computing rocket sweepers.  

Hopper remained at Harvard following the war, where she helped develop the Mark II and Mark III computers. On September 9, 1945, Hopper and her team encountered a problem with the Mark II, and upon investigation, discovered the first ever recorded “computer bug” inside the machine—not a programming bug, as you might expect, but a literal moth trapped inside a relay. Upon removing the moth, the machine continued to work as it should. At the time, Hopper commented that they were “debugging” the machine—and henceforth, this term has widely been used to refer to a computer programming malfunction. 

In 1951, Hopper wrote the world’s first compiler, a program that turns language statements into 0s and 1s, meaning that the programmer no longer had to do computing word by hand, leading to faster programming. During her long career, Hopper’s myriad accomplishments earned her the title of the “Amazing Grace.” At the time of retirement, she was the oldest active-duty officer in the US navy, at 79 years old.

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