Friday Hoyden: Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper“I invent the Future”

USN Rear Admiral “Amazing” Grace Hopper (1906-1992), mathematician, computer pioneer, marketing innovator, academic and above all guru of the importance of embracing change, has a special place in the heart of many a female nerd/geek. She was also known as the Grand Lady of Software and Grandma COBOL.

As a child of seven she notoriously took not only her own alarm clock apart, but then another six alarm clocks in the house trying to figure out how to put her own clock back together: when she was discovered she was restricted to tinkering with just one clock. This charming story is an early sign of a love of gadgets, fully supported by her parents, that never left her.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper helped to develop an early computer, invented the compiler making possible higher level computer languages, and helped to define the design of the programming language COBOL. First a member of the WAVES and the US Naval Reserve, Grace Hopper retired from the Navy several times before returning and gaining the rank of Rear Admiral. (

Amazing Grace was one of the pioneers of viewing computers as more than just giant calculators, and advocating their potential as key elements of information systems. She was also a renowned mentor of all information technicians, and particularly of women in maths and science careers.

Hopper enchanted her audiences with tales of the computer evolution and her uncanny ability to predict the trends of the future. Many of her predictions came true right before her eyes as industry built more powerful, more compact machines and developed the operating systems and software that matched her visions. Some of her more innovative ideas include using computers to track the lifecycle of crop eating locusts, building a weather computer, managing water reserves so that everyone would have a fair share and tracking the waves at the bottom of the ocean. She also thought every ship should have a computer that the crew could play with and learn to use. (full biography at

Hopper and her nanosecondsOne of her favourite demonstration gimmicks was to hand out short pieces of wire that represented a nanosecond, vividly described in this history of her via the Grace Hopper Celebrating Women in Computing Conference.

Most of us remember seeing Admiral Grace Murray Hopper on television. We recall a charming, tiny, white-haired lady in a Navy uniform with a lot of braid, admonishing a class of young Naval officers to remember their nanoseconds. The “nanoseconds” she handed out were lengths of wire, cut to not quite 12 inches in length, equal to the distance traveled by electromagnetic waves along the wire in the space of a nanosecond: one billionth of a second. In teaching efficient programming methods, Admiral Hopper wanted to make sure her students would not waste nanoseconds. Occasionally, to make the demonstration even more powerful, she would bring to class an entire “microsecond” a coil of wire nearly 1,000 feet long that the admiral, herself tough and wiry, would brandish with a sweeping gesture and a steady wrist.

Then of course, there is the famous legend of the first computer bug, a term often attributed to Hopper. She may have helped popularise the term, but even the famous logbook (now in the Smithsonian) with the moth found in the computer relay taped into it doesn’t support her inventing it, as what is written is “first actual case of bug being found”, which indicates that the term “bug” pre-dated the finding of the moth. She and her team probably did coin the term “debugging” however. (more at AFU Urban Legend Archive)

Some of my favourite Amazing Grace quotes:

“If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.

“The most dangerous phrase in the language is, “We’ve always done it this way.”

“You don’t manage people, you manage things. You lead people.

“We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership. It might help if we ran the MBAs out of Washington.

“I handed my passport to the immigration officer, and he looked at it and looked at me and said, “What are you?”

USS Hopper (DDG-70) is named in honor of Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper.

Categories: technology

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5 replies

  1. Ada Lovelace is worth remembering to, and not just by us geeks, as probably the first person we can call a programmer, when she worked with Babbage.
    She too has been immortalized by the US military, with much of the mil programming done in ADA, which was given the military standard number referencing the year of her birth. MIL-STD-1815. She did young and was forgotten for nearly a hundred years.
    Ada Lovelace, in the mid 19th century, saw the potential of Babbage’s hardware not as a giant calculator, but as something that would one day compose beautiful music!
    (But Hopper’s “DIVIDE X INTO Y GIVING Z” drove me batty and into Fortran.)

  2. Thanks for the Ada Lovelace link. I knew the name, and the US military programming language named after her, but not all the history.

  3. Paul Gannon’s “Colossus: Bletchley Park’s Greatest Secret” spends some time discussing how heavily Britain’s codebreaking and early adventures in computing technology depended on women.
    While women weren’t involved in the design of the early computers, they certainly were responsible for making the cantankerous machinery work as part of a large scale information processing operation.
    I am little surprised that a British Grace Hopper didn’t come out of Bletchley Park.

  4. I am little surprised that a British Grace Hopper didn’t come out of Bletchley Park.

    It would have at least made for some interesting plot complications in Cryptonomicon.

  5. I had the great good fortune to hear Adm. Hopper speak at a conference in the 1980’s. What an astounding person!
    The thing I most remember was she said, “Decide where you want to be in the parade and then don’t let anyone else tell you that you belong elsewhere. You can do it!”
    Thanks for this post.

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