This Female Naval Officer Became a Computer-Age Pioneer

Commodore Grace M. Hopper. (U.S. Navy photo)
Commodore Grace M. Hopper. (U.S. Navy photo)

Grace Murray Hopper's greatest love was not the Navy; it was the Navy's Mark I computer. As a lieutenant junior grade assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University in 1943, Hopper adored this eight-foot-high, eight-foot-wide mass of relays, switches and vacuum tubes.


Legend has it that once, during a malfunction that caused the Mark I to shut down every few seconds, a group of admirals came to see the machine in action. Hopper leaned against the Mark I and kept her finger discreetly on the start button to keep her beloved computer running.

Known alternately as "Amazing Grace," "the Mother of Computing" and "Grandma COBOL," Grace Murray Hopper revolutionized the world of computing -- and with it, the world of the Navy. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in 1928 and receiving her Ph.D. from Yale University, Hopper enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943 because "there was a war on."

Her wartime service was on the Mark I, the first large-scale digital computer. It had 72 words of storage and could perform three additions per second. Hopper began working then with Howard Aiken and, after her post-war discharge, stayed on to work on the Marks II and III.

In 1949, Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchly Corporation to work on the UNIVAC I. Remaining on Naval Reserve duty, she continued to make contributions to the field that developed "the machine that assisted the power of the brain rather than muscle," she told a journalist. In 1967, she was recalled to active duty and served with the Naval Data Automation Command until her retirement. She integrated her 1950s pioneering work on compilers (intermediate programs that translate English language instructions for computers) into the development of the business language COBOL.

Along with her many awards, honorary degrees and Navy Meritorious Service Medal (1980), Hopper was awarded the Department of Defense's highest honor, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, in 1986.

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