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Grace Hopper: The Amazing Admiral Who Invented a New Language for Computers

Grace Hopper: The Amazing Admiral Who Invented a New Language for Computers

How a mathematician and a naval officer became a pioneer of computer programming and created COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages.

Grace Hopper was not only a brilliant mathematician and a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, but also a visionary who helped shape the history of computing. She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, a giant electromechanical machine that was used for military and scientific calculations during World War II. She also invented one of the first linkers, a program that connects different parts of a program into a single executable file. But perhaps her most lasting contribution was the creation of FLOW-MATIC, a programming language that used English words instead of symbols and numbers. FLOW-MATIC was later extended to create COBOL, an acronym for Common Business-Oriented Language, which became widely used for business and government applications.

Grace Hopper was born Grace Brewster Murray on December 9, 1906, in New York City. She had a curious mind and a passion for mathematics since childhood. She graduated from Vassar College in 1928 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics, and then earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University in 1930 and 1934, respectively. She became a professor of mathematics at Vassar College, where she taught until 1943.

In 1930, she married Vincent Foster Hopper, an English professor at New York University. They divorced in 1945, but she kept his surname for the rest of her life.

When World War II broke out, Hopper wanted to join the Navy, but she was rejected because she was too old (34) and too thin (105 pounds). She persisted and managed to enlist in the Navy Reserve as a volunteer in 1943. She was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University, where she worked under Howard Aiken, the director of the Harvard Computation Laboratory and the designer of the Harvard Mark I computer.

The Harvard Mark I was a huge machine that occupied a room of 51 feet long by 8 feet high by 2 feet deep. It had more than 750,000 parts, including switches, relays, gears, shafts, and wires. It could perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, trigonometric functions, logarithms, and exponentiation. It could store 72 numbers, each with 23 decimal digits. It could process about three calculations per second.

Hopper was one of the six programmers who wrote instructions for the Harvard Mark I using punched paper tapes. She also wrote the first manual for the machine and co-authored three papers based on her work on it. She later recalled that programming the Harvard Mark I was “like planning a dinner”. She said: “You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it… You have to lay out the table and put things on it in order… Then you have to be able to control things when something goes wrong with your plan… It’s very much like programming.”

In 1946, Hopper became a research fellow at Harvard Computation Laboratory. She worked on the Harvard Mark II and Mark III computers, which were faster and more reliable than the Mark I. She also encountered one of the first computer bugs: a moth that got stuck in one of the relays of the Mark II and caused a malfunction. She removed the moth and taped it in her log book with the note: “First actual case of bug being found.”

In 1949, Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation as a senior mathematician. She worked on the UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer I), the first commercial electronic computer in the United States. The UNIVAC I used vacuum tubes instead of electromechanical parts and could perform about 1,000 calculations per second. It could also read data from magnetic tapes and print output on paper tapes or typewriters.

Hopper was in charge of developing an automatic programming system for the UNIVAC I. She realized that most users did not want to write programs using binary codes or assembly languages, which were difficult to learn and prone to errors. She envisioned a programming language that would use English words and phrases to describe the operations and data of a program. She said: “It occurred to me that there were two ways to program a computer: One way was to sit down with pencil

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