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The Navy recalls retired Commander Grace Hopper

“Amazing Grace” served her second stint in the Navy from August 1967 to August 1986.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Grace Brewster Murray Hopper (1906-1992) wanted to “join the war effort.” She would be the oldest officer in the service when she retired the second time.

The mathematics professor (PhD, Yale, 1934) “persisted and eventually received a waiver” which allowed her to join the US Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve). She took a leave of absence from Vassar, where she was an associate professor.

Grace Hopper
Grace Hopper near Cruft Lab, Harvard University, ca. 1945–1947. From Grace Murray Hopper Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

The Navy assigned her to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project* at Harvard University, which built one of the earliest digital computers, the Harvard Mark I. A month after D-Day, at age 37, “she reported to active Navy duty in the basement of the Cruft Laboratory at Harvard University.”

In 1949, military officials refused her request to join the regular Navy. Hopper became senior mathematician on the Univac (Universal Automatic Computer) project. The Univac1 was the first general-purpose commercial computer. The US Census Bureau took delivery of the first Univac on 31 March 1951.

In 1986, she told The New York Times:

”Compiling in ’51, nobody believed that,” she said of her early work on teaching computers to write their own programs. ”I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it, because, they carefully told me, computers could only do arithmetic, they could not write programs. It was a selling job to get people to try it.

”I think with any new idea, because people are allergic to change, you have to get out and sell the idea,” she mused.

In 1966, Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve at age 60 with the rank of Commander.

On 01 August 1967, the US Navy recalled Hopper, where she would create the specifications for COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language).

From 1967 to 1977, she served as the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group in the Navy’s Office of Information Systems Planning and was promoted to the rank of captain in 1973. 

According to the Computer History Museum:

Hopper made many major contributions to computer science throughout her very long career, including what is likely the first compiler ever written, “A-0.” She appears to have also been the first to coin the word “bug” in the context of computer science, taping into her logbook a moth which had fallen into a relay of the Harvard Mark II computer.

TIME quoted Hopper in 1984:

From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it.

In 1983, President Reagan promoted Hopper, also known as  “Amazing Grace,” to the rank of commodore, which would later be renamed rear admiral.

In 1986, she retired from the Navy at age 79; she was the oldest serving officer in the service (US Navy Reserve, Rear Admiral, Retired). Admiral Hopper would begin “a new career at age 79 at Digital Equipment Corporation.”

In 1991, President George Bush awarded her the National Medal of Technology, making her the “first woman to receive America’s highest technology award as an individual.”

During her career, she taught at her alma mater, Vassar, as well as Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University. She also received the first Computer Sciences “Man of the Year” award.

She died on 01 January 1992 at the age of 85.

The Navy commissioned the guided missile destroyer, USS Hopper, in 1997. In 2016, Barack Obama posthumously granted her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


* Sometimes referenced as Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project.

#scitech, #science, #women  (193/365)
📷 Quote CC Kathy Gill; photo, Wikipedia
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