Hopper, who died in 1992, was a computer engineer who served in the Navy during World War II and went on to develop the first real computer software — long before “software” was even a concept with a name. The video above called “The Queen of Code” celebrates her life and work.
We often talk now about how women are excluded from tech jobs, but the landscape looks nothing like it did in Hopper’s day. Not only was she barred from advancing in two separate careers because she was a woman, she was deliberately left out of newspaper photos documenting big achievements of which she was an integral part.
“The erasure of women was happening in real time,” the film’s director, actor Gillian Jacobs, told Re/Code. The whole thing is worth watching, but here are a couple of Hopper highlights:
She figured out how to make the atom bomb work.
After the Vassar math professor convinced the Navy to let her join up at the age of 37, she went to work on the Mark I computer at Harvard University and set about learning how to make the supercomputer work better than anybody else had. When Hopper first laid eyes on the Mark I, she was enamored: “Gee, that’s the prettiest gadget I ever saw,” she recalled thinking.
Hopper didn’t know what her work would be used for at the time, but over three months with the Mark I, she solved an incredibly difficult calculation for the Manhattan Project: figuring out how to make a sphere collapse on itself and where on that sphere to apply pressure in order to make it work. Her solution was the key to making the atomic bomb explode properly.
While she was working on a Mark II Computer at a US Navy research lab in Dahlgren, Virginia in 1947, her associates discovered a moth stuck in a relay and thereby impeding operation, whereupon she remarked that they were “debugging” the system. Though the term bug had been in use for many years in engineering to refer to small glitches and inexplicable problems, Admiral Hopper did bring the term into popularity. The remains of the moth can be found in the group’s log book at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Even so, after the war ended, Hopper wasn’t allowed to become a professor at Harvard — then a guys-only club — nor continue in the Navy (ditto). So, instead:
She basically invented coding.
Hopper found a job working for an early computer company and quickly realized none of the small computers being developed could talk to each other. Recognizing that most people in America can’t understand anything about math (guilty), she advocated turning symbolic computer language into plain English. She was laughed off. She later playfully made fun of her doubters in a speech.
I’ve driven a large number of people at least partially nuts. After all, insisting on talking to computers in plain English was a totally ridiculous idea, and you couldn’t do that. Except it worked.
The language she helped develop, known as COBOL, made up 70% of all actively used code by the year 2000. Her legacy of innovation and problem solving continues in the thousands of women who follow in her footsteps today.
Here are a few photos that capture the life and work of Admiral Grace Hopper…