By Taliah Soleymani
Lost in the times of female oppression are the names of many women who shaped our world. More specifically, lost in the past are the names of female scientists who made great contributions to science and technology. One of the many such names is Grace Brewster Murray Hopper, a computer pioneer and naval officer.
Highly educated, Hopper held a BS in mathematics and physics from Vassar College (1928) and an MS (1930) and Ph.D. in mathematics (1934) from Yale University. Her career began as a professor at Vassar College. However, upon the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hopper decided to join the war effort. Initially, she was rejected on the grounds of her age and petite stature, but she persisted.
Though World War II created opportunities for women to enter the workforce in greater numbers, Hopper’s success in a male-dominated field and male-dominated institutions – including the U.S. Navy – was exceptional. In December 1943 the U.S. Naval Reserve assigned her to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. In her position, Hopper calculated rocket trajectories, constructed range tables for anti-aircraft guns, and calibrated minesweepers–all essential to the war effort.
One of her great contributions while working for the Bureau of Ships Computation Project was the work she had done with computer pioneer Howard Aiken on the invention of the Mark 1 – the first automatic sequence controlled calculator. Unlike the men who concentrated mainly on the development of computer hardware, the women who became involved during World War II were aware of the significance of programming. Accordingly, Hopper developed ways to code the instructions that told the hardware what operations to perform. These programs contained the magic formulas that could be used to manipulate machines in extraordinary ways. Thus, Hopper first demonstrated the possibility of building a large calculating machine that could solve problems efficiently.
Since Aiken understood her gift for communicating precisely, she was entrusted to write the world’s first computer programming manual. “You are going to write a book,” he said as he stood next to her desk. “I can’t write a book,” she retorted. “I’ve never written one.” “Well, you’re in the Navy now,” he declared. “You are going to write one.” Her grit resulted in a 561-page book that provided useful programming information, as well as historical background on how Mark 1 was designed.
Hopper prophesied that one day computers would be compact and usable by people other than professional programmers. Her contributions to Mark 1 paved the way for her prophecy.
The prestige of her work was not only noted nationally, but internationally. Hopper, in 1973, was the first woman to hold the title of a distinguished fellow of the British Computer Society. She passed away on January 1, 1992. After her death, in 2016, Hopper was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Now, her body resides at Arlington National Cemetery. Though she has passed, her legacy continues through The Grace Hopper Program — the world’s first all-women deferred tuition coding boot camp.