December 9th: Grace Hopper!

Today, Google has posted another great Doodle, this one very long overdue. They’re honoring computer scientist and Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, whose many accomplishments in computing paved the way for our digital world.

The Google Doodle honoring Grace Hopper's birthday, posted on December 9th, 2013.

The Google Doodle honoring Grace Hopper’s birthday, posted on December 9th, 2013.

Hopper was born on this date in 1906, and was a bright and advanced student. She attended Vassar for her undergraduate degrees in math and physics, and then went to Yale for a master’s degree and a PhD in math. By 1941, she was a professor at Vassar, until she took a leave of absence to join the Navy Reserve. Her assignments with the Navy took her to the world of high-stakes, cutting-edge computing. Hopper joined the Harvard Computation Lab, working on the Mark I computer, and then moved on to the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (later Remington Rand) as a senior member of the UNIVAC I team.  In this phase of her career, she coined the term “debugging” (during an incident in which an actual bug, a moth, was stuck in a relay of the Mark II computer — notice the moth in the Doodle!). Later, she also served as Director of the Navy’s Office of Information Systems Planning Programming Languages Group.

Hopper created the first programming language compiler in 1952 and developed the key concepts leading to program languages like COBOL that could be used on different hardware architectures, and that could be written in “plain English.” This, and much of her later work, focused on developing and implementing solutions that would make computing more accessible and thus applicable to a wider range of problems. Hopper was also a pioneer in developing distributed computer networks and standard for testing computer systems, leading to the Navy’s own standardization policy.

Following her retirement from the Navy, Hopper worked with the Digital Equipment Corporation, primarily lecturing and conducting outreach activities. She passed away at the age of 85 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

An official Navy portrait of Grace M. Hopper, taken in 1984 by James S. Davis.

An official Navy portrait of Grace M. Hopper, taken in 1984 by James S. Davis.

Like many of the incredible female pioneers and innovators written about here, Grace Hopper collected a long list of awards and honors in her lifetime. In her Naval career, she achieved the rank of Rear Admiral (lower half) and was awarded a Defense Distinguished Service Medal, a Legion of Merit, a Meritorious Service Medal, and more. Hopper was a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and the American Association of University Women Achievement Award. The Association for Computing Machinery  has established the Grace Murray Hopper Award for Outstanding Young Computer Professionals, and has also established in cooperation with the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology an annual conference entitled the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Yale University has also named a professorship in her honor in their Department of Computer Sciences.

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