Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper: The Mother of Cobol

A tribute to Grace Murray Hopper

Known as the Mother of Cobol, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was a computer pioneer, naval officer, educator, lecturer, and medal-winning woman in the computer science field. Her knowledge, education, tenacity, and experience led to her international recognition.

Who Is Grace Hopper? The Early Years

Born in December 1906 in New York City, Grace Brewster Murray Hopper was Walter Fletcher Murray and Mary Campbell Van Horne's daughter. As a child, she was educated in private schools and showed an early interest in engineering.

Grace Hopper from We Are Tech Women
Inspirational Women in Tech / We Are Tech Women.

She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in 1928 with degrees in mathematics and physics. She then received her master’s degree in mathematics from Yale in 1930 and, one year later, began teaching the same subject at Vassar College. She completed her educational career in 1934 with her Ph.D. in mathematics. Later in life, she became an educator herself and a professional lecturer in the computer science field.

“To me, programming is more than an important practical art. It is also a gigantic undertaking in the foundations of knowledge.”

Rear Admiral Hopper’s Naval Career

During World War II, Grace Murray Hopper attempted to enlist in the Navy, but they rejected her because of her age (34) and small stature. She then took a leave from her work at Vassar College to join the United States Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve) known as WAVES.

Grace Hopper from Wikipedia
James S. Davis / Wikipedia.

After training at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School in Massachusetts, she graduated first in her class. She was then assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University as a lieutenant, junior grade.

She held onto her affiliation with the Naval Reserve for the rest of her life, even as she made significant technology contributions. Although the Navy never approved her transfer to the Navy beyond the Reserve, she earned the commander's rank in 1966, captain in 1973, commodore in 1983, and rear admiral in 1985.

“Leadership is a two-way street, loyalty up and loyalty down. Respect for one’s superiors; care for one’s crew.”

In 1987, she was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat military decoration.

What Is Grace Hopper Known For? 

While with the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard, Hopper worked with another computer pioneer, Howard Aiken. Headed by Aiken, the team developed the Mark I computer, also known as the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator. Hopper was tasked with programming the Mark I and wrote a 500+ page user manual for this early electromechanical computer.

She and the team’s computations were said to be essential to the war effort. The military used them for calculating rocket trajectories, calibrating minesweepers, and creating range tables for new guns.

Grace Hopper Yale News
Computer History Museum / Yale News.

Mark II and Mark III soon followed. As the story goes, the team found a moth inside the Mark II one evening in 1947, making Hopper the first to call a computer problem a “bug.” Hopper continued her work with the Harvard Computation Lab until 1949.

She then joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, later acquired by Remington Rand. She worked as a senior mathematician on the team developing UNIVAC I, the first large-scale, all-electronic computer to hit the market in 1950.

“From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it.”

It was during this time that Hopper suggested a new computer language. She believed that people would more widely use a programming language using English words rather than just symbols. While the company dismissed her suggestion for a few years, Hopper didn’t give up on her idea and developed the first computer language compiler. 

In 1952, the first version of the program was born and called A-0. This program, which functioned as a linker, gave programmers the ability to write programs for multiple computers instead of individual ones. And the compiler basically “translated mathematical notation into machine code.” 

“They told me computers could only do arithmetic.”

Between 1954 and 1955 came Flow-Matic, a compiler-based programming language that uses English statements as commands. The program became available to the public in 1958. Flow-Matic was the concept that shaped Cobol.

Defined in 1959, Cobol (common business-oriented language) is a programming language for data processors that we still use today. Hopper promoted this language to both military and private sectors throughout the 1960s. By the 1970s, Cobol was the most widely used computer language worldwide.

Grace Hopper from Space.com
Smithsonian Institution / Space.com.

Hopper served as director of the Navy Programming Languages Group, developed validation software for Cobol, and the compiler was part of the standardization program for the entire Navy.

In the 1970s, she developed standards for testing computer systems and components. The National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)) adopted these tests.

“The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’”

The Timeline of a Legacy

1906: Born in New York City.

1928: Graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College.

1930: Obtained her master’s in mathematics from Yale University and married New York University professor Vincent Foster Hopper.

1931: Began teaching mathematics at Vassar College.

1934: Completed her Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University.

1943: Joined the U.S. Naval Reserve (WAVES).

1944: Commissioned as a lieutenant, junior grade, and assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University.

1945: Divorced from her husband, Vincent Foster Hopper.

1949: Joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation as a senior mathematician.

1952: Developed the first computer language compiler.

1954: Developed with her team the Math-Matic and Flow-Matic programming languages.

1959: Defined the Cobol programming language and became a lecturer at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

1966: Earned the rank of commander and retired from the Naval Reserve.

196719711972: Recalled to active duty in the Naval Reserve, retired once more and returned to active duty again.

“I seem to do a lot of retiring.”

1972 - 1978: Served as a professional lecturer at George Washington University.

1973: Earned the rank of captain in the Naval Reserve and the first American and woman to be named a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society.

1983: Earned commodore's rank in the Naval Reserve by special Presidential appointment by President Ronald Reagan.

1985: Earned the rank of rear admiral in the Naval Reserve.

1986 - 1987: Retired from the Naval Reserve for good and was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.

1988: Received the National Medal of Technology.

1991: Named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In January 1992, at the age of 85, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper passed away in her sleep from natural causes and was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. She had no children. After her passing, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom to recognize her contributions to the computer science industry.

Thank You, Grace Murray Hopper

Regarding Cobol alone, revisions to it over the decades have led to object-oriented syntaxes used by vendors such as IBM and Fujitsu. Cobol programs are still running on operating systems like Unix and Windows. And the concept of using English statements as computer commands has influenced not only programming languages but also the people who write them and use them every day.

“A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things.”

Without the contributions from Grace Murray Hopper, we would not be where we are today in the world of technology. Thank you, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper.

Read more about other influential women in technology with our list of important women in video games history.

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