Celebrating Amazing Grace

Today is World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, a day organised to raise awareness about the ways in which information and communication technology can help societies and economies. On this occasion, DiscovHER pays homage to a truly exceptional computing pioneer, Grace Hopper. Also known as “Amazing Grace” or “the first lady of software,” Grace Hopper was responsible for many computing breakthroughs, including inventing the COBOL programming language and developing the first compiler, a piece of software that “translates” one programming language into another. Oh, and she also found the first ever computer bug.

Grace Hopper’s story is unusual, to say the least. Born in 1906 in New York City, the young Grace was a precocious child: aged seven, she took apart seven alarm clocks to determine how they work, before her mother noticed what she was doing. Her thirst for knowledge and willingness to push boundaries were traits that would stay with her for life. She studied mathematics at Vassar and then Yale, before enlisting in the Navy in 1943.

Joining the Navy Reserve as a lieutenant in order to follow her great-grandfather’s footsteps, Hopper eventually rose to the rank of Rear Admiral and became the oldest active-duty military officer in the US. Even after she was forced to retire at 60, the Navy called her back for a six-month stint that eventually turned into an indefinite appointment. It’s not hard to see why: during her time there, Hopper achieved a number of computing breakthroughs.

A real math genius, she was assigned to work on the Mark I, the first large-scale digital computer developed at Harvard and used in the US war effort. She was the first person to program it, transforming the string of indecipherable numbers that the computer churned out into comprehensible language.

Later on, when working on the Mark II, Hopper discovered a moth stuck between its relays, which caused the computer to malfunction. If you were wondering where the term “computer bug” originates, well, now you know.

Another of Hopper’s achievements was developing COBOL, a computer language for businesses, which ended up being the most commonly used business language to date. She also invented the compiler, a ground-breaking piece of software that translates between different languages and has been vital in the evolution of modern computing.

Amazing Grace, indeed!

Do you know any other women computing pioneers? Let us know @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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