Grace Hopper – The Foundation of Programming Languages

Women in Tech – The Role of Women in Technological Progress

There are many achievements that have advanced the tech industry, but the ones that have made our current progress possible are particularly impressive. Who is the Woman in Tech we will be talking about today? When asked by David Letterman how she knew so much about computers when she first started working on them, this woman once said, meaningfully, “I didn’t. It was the first one.” Let’s learn about Grace Hopper, the first computers, and her contribution to the way we live today.

Who was Grace Hopper?

Grace Hopper’s biography is undoubtedly impressive. Born in New York City in 1906, she studied mathematics and physics at Yale, earned her doctorate, and then taught mathematics herself at the elite Vassar College. In 1944, she joined the U.S. Navy to do her part in World War II. At the end of her military career in 1986, she was a Rear Admiral. For several years, she worked at the Harvard Computer Laboratory and for an influential computer company. She even returned from retirement to active duty when the Navy asked her to help with computer problems.

All of this is impressive enough, but Grace Hopper’s work on projects like Mark I and II, and most especially UNIVAC I, one of the first commercial computers, was more than just impressive. It was groundbreaking.

What is she known for?

While working on UNIVAC I, Grace Hopper developed the world’s first complier. Up to this point, computer programming was very complex and cumbersome. The compiler, called A-0, was able to simplify the work of programmers by translating natural language into the machine codes that computers worked with. In short, it broke down complex sequences of characters into short commands like RUN and vice versa. However, Hopper was met with skepticism.

“I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it because, they carefully told me, computers could only do arithmetic; they could not do programs.”

From today’s perspective, this skepticism sounds silly, because most computers do nothing but run programs now. This very ability is one of the main reasons why they are so valuable to our everyday lives. It’s safe to say we are lucky that Grace Hopper wasn’t swayed by the concerns.

Alongside the first compiler, she also developed the first programming language. It was named FLOW-MATIC and formed the basis for the development of the programming language COBOL (Common business oriented language), which grew to become extremely popular.

Grace Hopper und ihre Kollegen mit dem UNIVAC 1

Grace Hopper and colleagues with the UNIVAC 1, Image source Unknown (Smithsonian Institution), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bugs and computers

Probably the most famous anecdote about Grace Hopper is the discovery of a bug. While working on the Mark II computer, her team encountered problems. Eventually, they found the reason: a moth had crawled into the computer and disrupted the systems. Hopper recorded this incident with the words “First actual case of bug being found”.

Even though people like to claim it: Hopper did not invent the concept of bugs and debugging. Thomas Edison already spoke of bugs as technical errors that affected his inventions and even made a pun about the imaginary insects. Clearly, the word bug was already in use in this sense in his time as well.

Grace Hopper: Bug im Computer Mark II

Excerpt from the team’s logbook.
Courtesy of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, VA., 1988., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Y2K problem

Do you remember the turn of the year from 1999 to 2000? If so, you surely remember the worries about all sorts of technical devices failing, most notably computers of all kinds. Grace Hopper is “to blame” for this millnium bug. We put the blame in quotation marks, because she could never have anticipated that her programming in COBOL back then would not be replaced by 1999. Memory space was insanely expensive at the time, so Hopper and her team decided to limit the representation of years to the last two digits.

Just a few years later, a different representation would have been more than possible, and yet the problem was not addressed until just before the change to the year 2000. And in case you are also asking yourself this question right now: Yes, COBOL is still used today in some applications.

Impact on today’s world

Grace Hopper’s impact on today is as simple as it is significant: every programming language we know today is based on her work. Had it not been for her, we might not have the technological capabilities that shape our lives today. Grace Hopper’s perseverance took computer applications to a whole new level. Not only can we work much more effectively with programming languages that are close to natural language, but programming itself became much more accessible as time went on. Who knows if and when another person would have suggested this step again.

In any case, her career and work is inspiring. Grace Hopper saw beyond perceived limitations and created the foundations that made our rapid technological progress possible.

Grace Hopper’s work still inspires projects and celebrations today.

All the best
Your sms77 team

Pictures in header:
UNIVAC picture by Don DeBold from San Jose, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Grace Hopper picture is public domain, also via Wikimedia Commons

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