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Grace Hopper

The Queen of Software (1906 - 1992)

While she was working on the Mark II, an electromechanical computer financed by the United States Navy, Grace Brewster Murray Hopper found something peculiar that was impeding the operation of one of its relays: a moth. As such, in order to operate again, the relay had to be ‘debugged’. Indeed, this term might sound familiar. One of the key terms in engineering - debugging, that is - originates from an actual bug discovered by Grace Hopper. This brief but amusing anecdote connects two important areas in which American computer scientist Grace Hopper would get to flourish: on one side, the American military, and, on the other side, the early computer industry, nurtured by the Second World War and, after that, the Cold War.

At the age of 34, Grace made a courageous attempt to enlist to the United States Navy. When this attempt failed, she decided to pursue a computing career, while, at the same time, joining the Naval Reserve. This decision appeared to be fruitful: in 1944, she became one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I, a general-purpose electromechanical computer that was used in the final stages of the Second World War. Her contribution manifested itself in a rather mundane object: the 561-page user manual that she singlehandedly wrote. Remarkably, the team used computing principles that were already worked out in the 1800s by fellow woman in Computer Science Ada Lovelace. One of such principles was the usage of a library of commonly-used subroutines.

Grace’s trailblazing work did not end along with the Second World War. While working for the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, she created the world’s first workable compiler, known as the A-0 system. Finished by 1952, the compiler translated ordinary English into symbolic mathematical code and, thus, made programming much more accessible to ordinary folks. The development process that she used to create this compiler, which could be described as open and collaborative, was used again when she served as the technical lead in the coordination of the development of COBOL. This would become the first standardized business language for computers.

When Grace retired from the military in 1986, she had been one of the longest-serving officers in the United States military, having computed rocket trajectories and calibrating minesweepers for a respectable period of 42 years. In 1991, she became the first woman to receive the highest technology award of the U.S., recognizing her as a female computer pioneer. Indeed, in those years, it had not remained unnoticed that she accomplished all this being a woman. Hence, a part of her legacy is the creation of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, an annual conference designed to bring the research interests of women in computing to the forefront.

Grace Hopper


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