THE WOMAN WHO SPOKE TO COMPUTERS
The first computers were beasts, room-sized boxes bursting with tubes and tape and glitches. The few who could program them were not your average nerds. One was a Harvard physics professor. Another was the founder of IBM. And one was a prim, proper woman soon known as “Amazing Grace.”
Grace Murray Hopper is hardly a household name like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. But she looms just as large in the creation of the device you’re using to reading this. Without Grace Hopper, aka “The Grand Old Lady of Software,” computers would still be user-hostile. Though smaller, lighter, and too much with us, they would respond only to numbers. Imagine — “Hey, Siri — 21, 29, 3.14159!”
Grace Murray was a curious child, curiously independent, curiously driven, and just plain curious about everything. Growing up in New York in the 1910s, she was drawn not to dolls (hiss!) but to gadgets. At age seven, she dissected an alarm clock to see what made it tick. When she couldn’t find the answer, she found another clock. And another. Seven in all before her mother stopped her.
In the decade of flappers and floozies, Grace studied math at Vassar, then went on to earn a Ph.D. in that scary subject — at Yale. Married to an NYU professor, she took his name but took no leave of absence for family or children. Professor Hopper, soon teaching math at Vassar, was more fascinated by numbers, systems, logic.
When World War II came, Grace tried to enlist in the Navy, like her great-grandfather, a rear admiral. She was too old, she was told, and too thin. Nevertheless, she persisted. Granted waivers for age and weight, she graduated first in her class among the Navy’s female WAVES and was sent to Harvard.
There the Navy was using the world’s first mainframe computer, the Mark I, to calculate artillery trajectories. Standing before the behemoth, eight feet tall, 50 feet long, and less powerful than the computer chip in your key fob, Grace stood her ground. She found the Mark I “the prettiest gadget I ever saw.”
Though she easily mastered the math, Grace knew that numbers could be daunting. Not every Joe had a Ph.D. So in 1949, while programming the first commercial computer, UNIVAC, she lobbied for language. Computer language. She was told to go back to her slide rule. “Computers don’t speak English.”
Undeterred, Grace set about teaching computers to understand us. Over the next few years, she crunched numbers and crafted commands. By 1952, she had blended math and language into the first “compiler.”
“It's much easier for most people to write an English statement than it is to use symbols,” she explained. “So I decided data processors ought to be able to write their programs in English, and the computers would translate them into machine code.” Her initial language, A-0, evolved into Common Business Oriented Language — COBOL. And COBOL revolutionized the big beastly computers that were soon blinking in every corporate office.
Drawn back to the Navy, Grace was soon working at the Pentagon. Throughout the 1970s, she headed the Navy Programming Language Group. Along with her genius, she was known as a straight-talking officer who loathed bureaucracy. Her motto: “It’s easier to apologize than to ask permission.”
Hopper was also known as a character — she kept a pirate flag and a backwards running clock on her desk. Weary of “military intelligence,” she developed a gift for simplifying complex ideas. Consider her own private nanosecond.
Who can comprehend a billionth of a second? Confused herself, Grace turned the micro-measurement into wire. 11.7 inches. That’s how far light travels in a nanosecond. Everywhere she spoke, she handed out “nanoseconds,” then held up a microsecond — one millionth of a second. She couldn’t hand them out because a wire-length microsecond runs to 984 feet.
By the 1980s, Grace had risen to captain, then finally, like her great-grandfather, rear admiral. She had also begun to resemble Granny in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The combination made her a celebrity, interviewed on “60 Minutes” and Letterman, giving 200 talks a year at colleges, including M.I.T. When she retired in 1986, top Navy brass stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) to bid her well. At age 80, then known as “Grandma COBOL,” she became a consultant for Digital Electronics in Boston.
Grace Hopper died in her sleep in 1992. By then, even I had a computer. And it knew English. Today, thanks to “Amazing Grace,” all our digital devices, though they work their magic with numbers, almost seem to understand us.
“Information is absolutely inert,” Hopper often said. “It never does anything. It still has to be fed through another process, which consists of a human being.”