When, in 1982, David Letterman asked Dr. Hopper how she knew so much about computers, in order to work with Harvard's massive computer, Mark I, she replied, “I didn’t. It was the first one.”
Monday’s Google Doodle honors computing genius Grace Hopper on what would have been her 107th birthday, doodling her right where she spent much of her time – at the helm of one of the world’s first computers.
Dr. Hopper, remembered as a great pioneer in computing, as well as in women’s achievements in science and engineering, was born as Grace Brewster Murray on Dec. 9, 1906, in New York City. She married Vincent Foster Hopper in 1930 (he died in World War II, in 1945), and took his name.
In 1943, during World War II, she left the college to join the war effort and enlist in the United States Naval Reserve’s Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University. There, she joined a team of programmers working on the Mark I, an electro-mechanical computer 51 feet long, eight feet high, and two feet wide. Its some 756,000 parts weighed more than 10,000 pounds.
At Harvard, Hopper would go on to work with the subsequent Mark II and Mark III computers. She is often credited with coining the term “bug” for a computer malfunction: In 1947, she is said to have tweezed from the Mark II computer an actual moth that had been bugging up the machine, caught between Relay #70 and Panel F. She was also at the forefront of designing computers that would communicate to the user in a language similar to English, not in numbers. The language that she and her colleagues produced, Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL), is still in use in 2013.
She retired from the US Navy multiple times, the first time at the age of 60, but each time to rejoin again. She eventually rose to the rank of rear admiral in 1982, one year before she left the armed forces, for the last time, as its oldest active military officer. Until her death in 1992, she worked as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation.
Hopper, who was 37 when she went through army boot camp, was famous for her indelible work ethic. In an interview just after her retirement with Mr. Letterman, who called her “The Queen of Software,” Hopper told him that she’d never before seen the show, since it was too late for a person who had to be up at 5 each morning to get to work on time. She also told him that she had not been celebrating at midnight on the 31st of August in 1982, the exact moment at which she officially became a civilian, because she was sleeping.
Hopper was also well known as not just a genius – but a witty, charming, and personable one. On the Letterman show, she pulled out an 11.8-inch piece of wire to illustrate what a nanosecond was: “That is the maximum distance that light or electricity can travel in a billionth of a second,” she said, of the wire’s length. It was also her standard comeback for an admiral who wanted to know why it takes so long to get a message to a satellite: “between her and the satellite, there are a very large number of nanoseconds,” she said.
Hopper’s long list of awards includes the National Medal of Technology, the Data Processing Management Association’s “Computer Sciences Man of the Year” award, and the Defense Distinguished Service medal. The USS Hopper is also named for her, and she was interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.