Computer Science Illuminated, Third Edition


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Chapter 2: Binary Values and Number Systems

Grace Murray Hopper

From 1943 until her death on New Year's Day in 1992, Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was intimately involved with computing. In 1991, she was awarded the National Medal of Technology "for her pioneering accomplishments in the development of computer programming languages that simplified computer technology and opened the door to a significantly larger universe of users."

Admiral Hopper was born Grace Brewster Murray in New York City on December 9, 1906. She attended Vassar and received a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale. For the next 10 years, she taught mathematics at Vassar.

In 1943, Admiral Hopper joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University as a programmer on the Mark I. After the war, she remained at Harvard as a faculty member and continued work on the Navy's Mark II and Mark III computers. She loved to tell the story of how, while she was working on the Mark II, one of the operators discovered the first computer "bug"- a moth caught in one of the relays. In 1949, she joined Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and worked on the UNIVAC I.

Admiral Hopper had a working compiler in 1952, a time when the conventional wisdom was that computers could do only arithmetic. Although not on the committee that designed the computer language COBOL, she was active in its design, implementation, and use. COBOL (which stands for Common Business- Oriented Language) was developed in the early 1960s and is still widely used in business data processing.

Admiral Hopper retired from the Navy in 1966, only to be recalled within a year to fulltime active duty. Her mission was to oversee the Navy's efforts to maintain uniformity in programming languages. It has been said that just as Admiral Hyman Rickover was the father of the nuclear navy, Rear Admiral Hopper was the mother of computerized data automation in the Navy. She served with the Naval Data Automation Command until she retired again in 1986 with the rank of Rear Admiral. At the time of her death, she was a senior consultant at Digital Equipment Corporation. During her lifetime, Admiral Hopper received honorary degrees from more than 40 colleges and universities. She was honored by her peers on several occasions, including the first Computer Sciences Man of the Year award given by the Data Processing Management Association, and the Contributors to Computer Science Education Award given by the Special Interest Group for Computer Science Education, which is part of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery). Admiral Hopper loved young people and enjoyed giving talks on college and university campuses. She often handed out colored wires, which she called nanoseconds because they were cut to a length of about one foot--the distance that light travels in a nanosecond (billionth of a second). Her advice to the young was, "You manage things, you lead people. We went overboard on management and forgot about the leadership."

When asked which of her many accomplishments she was most proud of, she answered, "All the young people I have trained over the years."

Additional Links

Opening the doors for women everywhere, Grace Hopper made a significant contribution to the world of computer science as she faithfully served her country. Read about her accomplishments on this site.

Visit the Grace Murray Hopper web site
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