November’s Science woman comes from the math and technology section of my book! It felt like most of the accomplishments of these women were abstract and hard to relate to – Emily Noether was brilliant at algebra and invariants, Mary Cartwright discovered ‘chaos theory’ while deciphering irregularities in radar – but not Grace Hopper. She was driven by computers.
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992) is commonly known for being the person to coin the expression “computer bug” when she literally found a moth wedged inside a Mark II computer’s relay, but she did so much more. Even as a child she had always been drawn to gadgets and figuring out how things worked. She was the kind of child to take things apart to understand them better – and when she couldn’t get the first one put back together, she’d dismantle a second. She was a wiz in mathematics and after earning both a master’s and a PhD in mathematics at Yale (the first woman at the university to do so), she began a career as a mathematics professor.
However, the Pearl Harbor bombing changed everything for her. (Doesn’t it seem like most of these stories relate to a war somehow?) For Grace, luckily, the war didn’t cause an involuntary evacuation or an unjustified loss of a position. Instead, it inspired her to enlist. After arranging a leave from her position as a professor and even obtaining a waiver for the fact she was underweight, she succeeded in joining the US Naval Reserve at the age of 37. It was there that she was tasked with learning “how to program the [Mark I computer] and to get a program running.”
She was enthralled with her work with computers and once she was released from active duty, she choose not to return to her career as an educator. She instead moved to work at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. There she made one of her largest contributions to the field of computer programming. Rather than manually input the 1’s and 0’s needed to communicate with the computer, Grace wrote a program to translate human commands into the binary needed by the computer. This program, A-0 is known as the first “complier”. The diversity and accessibility of programming languages today would not be possible without the invention of a complier.
Grace was constantly reminding those she worked with to think creatively, to never fall into the rut of “we’ve always done it this way”. When asked about the boundaries of technology, she replied, “They’ll only be limited if our imaginations are limited. It’s all up to us. Remember, there were people who said the airplane couldn’t fly.”
She is recognized today as a key part of the development of computers. Beyond that, she continues to be an inspiration for women in technology. Her legacy has even inspired the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing – the largest annual gathering of women technologists.