It was obvious at an early age that Grace Hopper (née Murray) had a natural curiosity for figuring out how things work. At age seven, Hopper was caught disassembling alarm clocks to understand how they fit back together. This curiosity proved to be a life-long trait, taking her to Vassar, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics; and then to Yale, where she earned her master’s degree in 1930 and her Ph.D. in mathematics, four years later.
When the United States entered World War II, Hopper tried to enlist in the Navy but was denied for being too old at the age of 34 and too small for not meeting the minimum weight requirement. She was also rejected for being a mathematics professor at Vassar–a position valuable to the war effort. Not one to be derailed easily, Hopper applied for and obtained a leave of absence from her Vassar job and enlisted in the Naval Reserve. She was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1944 and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, where she learned to program a Mark I computer. After the war, Hopper remained with the Navy and served as a research fellow at Harvard, working on Mark II and Mark III computers.
Continuing to have an interest in computers, Hopper moved into private industry where she oversaw programming for the UNIVAC computer. In 1952 her team created the first compiler for computer languages, which would become the precursor for COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language). While she retired from the Navy in 1966, Hopper was called back into active duty at the age of 60 to work on standardizing communication between different computer languages–a command based on the computer work she helped pioneer. When she retired in 1986, Hopper was 79 years old but was also a rear admiral and the oldest serving officer in the service.
Hopper’s legacy includes earning the National Medal of Technology in 1991, and in 1997 the Navy’s commission of the guided missile destroyer, the USS Hopper, in San Francisco. While her programing accomplishments were legendary, it was Hopper’s work inspiring young people to learn to program that has had the greatest impact. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference is an annual event celebrating and encouraging women to remain part of the world of computing.
This past November, President Barack Obama posthumously honored Hopper with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.