This time I'm sharing with you the story of Grace Hopper written by Byzantine - member of our RU region. Enjoy!
It used to be said that a woman on board a ship was bad luck. Well, the truth is that it was far more difficult for a woman to get to the navy than to the army. Only few had enough determination and persistence to achieve the goal. And only a few individuals managed to reach the highest ranks and positions as well as received recognition of their comrades-in-arms. This article is about one of such ‘exceptions’. She resigned 28 years ago, on August 14, 1986, at the age of 79 and became the oldest active military officer in the US Navy.
From academic department to the Navy
It is pretty difficult to imagine and place the heroine of our story - “Amazing Grace”, as she was called in the navy, in the military. But still, the fact is that in 1944 Grace Hopper, a successful scholar and lecturer, associate professor of Vassar College, Doctor of Mathematics, became a lieutenant in the US Navy.
“If it's a good idea, go ahead and do it. It is much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”
Grace Hopper in the interview to the Chips Ahoy magazine
Once entered World War II, the US armed forces began to struggle with lack of government employees. In order to compensate the shortage of male personnel, the naval command initiated the WAVES program (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). In other words, it can be called the “US Navy Reserve”; however, the abbreviation created for advertising and promotional purposes became more popular. That was the one and only chance for many women to get enlisted in the military and serve for the country – and Grace immediately took this opportunity.
Hopper said that her family background had major influence on this decision – her great grandfather was a rear admiral in the US Navy and if she didn’t go to the war “he would have arisen from his grave and would have given her hell”. She put a lot of effort to make her way to the service. During the first attempt she was denied due to being too skinny and her age (she was already 37 years old!), but this didn’t discourage Grace. Her second attempt was more successful as she was accepted to the program and transferred to the warrant school in Massachusetts. Grace passed the course with flying colors becoming school’s best graduate.
The war conduced to a new round of science development - it went ahead by leaps and bounds. Army and fleet required more and more scientific achievements. However, there was one problem that had to be solved – complexity of calculations. More developed mathematical tools allowed to perform many tasks, but only manually. It was required to automate the complex computation. First computers, direct predecessors of modern personal computers, were developed in this purely military area.
“- How did you know so much about computers then?
- I didn’t. I was the first one.”
Grace Hopper in “Late Show with David Letterman” TV program”
Harvard University was one of the development centers, where Bureau of Ships Computation Project was founded. Here under the direction of Howard Aiken and participation of IBM, the first US digital computer “Mark I” was created. This device, in which around half a million dollars was invested, could perform three totaling or subtraction operations per second. For today’s computer users it may seem extremely slow, however, for that time this was a pretty decent result. “Mark I” replaced thirty operators performing mechanical calculations making ballistic charts quicker and more efficient.
During the very first day of service lieutenant Hopper was delegated to Harvard. That might have been the most unusual day in her life. Armed guards met her at the entrance to the knowledge and science department. Having entered she met the Commander Howard Aiken, who looked like a scientist, but was wearing a military uniform. The first phrase Aiken said was “Where the hell have you been?” followed by “I can’t believe that they sent me a woman!”. Grace had to become not only a member of Aiken’s team, but also his deputy. Straight away she was assigned a task – she had a week to resolve a bunch of tasks necessary for “Mark I” project. No manuals or user guides. Grace successfully coped with all of the tasks.
Works with Aiken, a rather complicated person, truly strengthened her character. Once he ordered her to write a manual of “Mark I”. Grace replied that she wasn’t capable of writing books. “You are in the navy” said Aiken, so she wrote it. Grace wasn’t only an expert in the ‘computer sphere’, she was among the pioneers of information technologies in the USA.
Again in the civil service
“There should be special training courses for that, at least dedicated to the civilian clothes.
I have always been wearing comfortable military shoes and when I tried a pair of heels – immediately fell on the ground.”
Grace Hopper about leaving the navy
Two significant achievements were attained by Grace during her work on UNIVAC – the development of a compiler and COBOL language. Thanks to Hopper computers support high-level programming languages, which, when compared to a machine code, are more understandable for people. It was her who managed to change the perception of computers into something more than just a ‘calculator’ – she made it a truly universal tool for resolving all possible kind of tasks. According to her a ‘communication’ with computers shouldn’t be based on zero and one digits or assembler, but on English. Grace had been literally fighting for her ideas. “I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it... they carefully told me, computers could only do arithmetic; they could not do programs.” she admitted later. If theoretically previously she had to struggle with chauvinism, then now she faced with ‘sluggishness of thinking’. Encouraging people (especially educated ones) to drastically change their attitude towards computers seemed to be an impossible task. However, due to her inexhaustible determination, Grace managed to make a revolution in minds of her colleagues. To her sluggishness and old habits were the biggest enemies. “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say "we've always done it this way." I try to fight that. That's why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.” In 1959 Grace, having earned respect of the scientific community, took part in the standardization of the COBOL language (Common Business Oriented Language). COBOL was based on her achievements and because of this Grace was called “Cobol Grandmother”. However, she herself treated this project with a large dose of humor. Once Hopper admitted that she had decided to work on COBOL, because she couldn’t calculate the monthly balance of her family budget. Despite its advanced age, COBOL is in use in business applications.
Apart from the two abovementioned achievements also the term “bug”, a name for a computer error, is attributed to the “Amazing Grace”. However, she never acknowledged her authorship over this term. This word had been used in a similar way before, but it was the team working on “Mark I” (namely in their records there is a note about a bug, which got into the machine) who contributed to the popularization of it.