Image courtesy of: computerhistory.org
In 1952, mathematician Grace Hopper completed what is considered to be the first compiler, a program that allows a computer user to use English-like words instead of numbers.
Grace Hopper’s 107th birthday was Monday this week. We should be celebrating her pioneering achievement in the early days of Computer Science, her long service to the nation, and her enduring role as an inspiration for aspiring technologists.
A Remarkable Life in Tech
Joining the US Navy when she was already 37, Grace Hopper was a major contributor to the development of the very first fully functional digital computers in the US. She was one of the first programmers of the computer Mark I, and later on, was part of the team that developed UNIVAC. It is even more remarkable to note that her contributions were most significant on programming languages and compilers, the most fundamental and most challenging areas of software development. Some of the most important programming languages of the 20th century such as COBOL and FORTRAN were heavily influenced by her research and ideas, and perhaps fittingly, she was also credited with popularizing the term “bug” to refer to an error in a computer science, most often caused by defective software.
She was also noted for her charming wit and wisdom, on full display in an interview with David Letterman when she turned 80, having just retired from the US Navy after decades of active duty!
An Enduring Inspiration for Women (and Men) in Tech
Today, as we all recognize the deep gender imbalance in the science and technology fields and its pernicious effects, it is even more important to celebrate Hopper’s achievements, for she joined the then-nascent field of computer science relatively late in life, and was one of the few women a new, challenging field that was dominated (and still is) by headstrong and ultra competitive men.
She has been an inspirational role model for generations of female (and of course, male) computer scientists, and events like the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is helping make computer science a more gender-balanced industry, attracting more talented women to choose programming as a career.
Grace Hopper famously said that she had a clock that ran counter clockwise to remind herself to always embrace changes and question the commonly accepted “wisdom” that, “We’ve always done it this way”. Her remarkable life and achievement embodies this spirit and is an inspiration for us all who are all working to create and support new technologies to support the greater good.