“The ship in the port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for”. Leadership Rules of Admiral of the U.S. Navy Grace Hopper – The First Woman in IT
This wonderful fragile girl, “Little Grace”, as her parents and others have been calling her for many years, will one day change her lace outfits for the rough uniform of a US Navy admiral, decorated with awards.
Thanks to her talent and perseverance, Grace Hopper won the “bingo” — the primacy in two “non-female” professions. Biographers will argue for a long time, which achievements of the American Grace Hopper are more significant — in the field of information technology, the navy or in a feminist environment? And they will not come to a common opinion.
After all, she was good at everything. And everywhere she was the first.
BRIGHT LITTLE LADY
Grace Hopper (née Murray) was born on December 9, 1906 into a wealthy family in New York. The girl, the oldest of three Murray children, had everything she wanted — she had beautiful dolls with porcelain faces, her own piano, a dozen beautiful dresses, books with bright pictures and the endless love of her parents. In the summer, the whole family could afford to travel closer to nature — to a rented house on the lake in New Hampshire.
When the girl “in lace” and with a candy on a stick in her hand turned seven, she really surprised her parents by dismantling her alarm clock for its component parts. “I really wanted to understand how it works! Why are the arrows moving and the bell ringing?” Grace asked. She was purposeful and meticulous, so six more of the same mechanisms with dials repeated the fate of the first alarm clock.
I’ve always been more interested in the future than in the past
Others might have been upset, but the Murray family was jubilant — the child would definitely follow in the footsteps of her grandfather, the chief civil engineer of New York. Or become a stockbroker like Dad. Grace’s Mom also believed that the girl would inherit her love for the exact sciences.
Parents chose a worthy university for her — Vassar College, dedicated to educate girls. If it was a regular “women’s college”, Grace Hopper would never agree to study there. But within these walls they taught sciences and crafts, and the institution itself competed with the best universities in the United States.
Grace entered there only on her second attempt, and it was, without a doubt, her first and last failure. Hopper got her coveted bachelor’s degrees in Mathematics and Physics and continued her studies at Yale University. She became a MA, PhD, and returned to Vassar College to teach others.
TOO SCEAWNY SEAMAN
The Second World War ruined her plans for a peaceful job. The girl decided that it was time to serve her homeland. And without any doubt, as a Professor of Mathematics, she volunteered for the navy. “She is a true Marine, but if you dig deeper, we will find a pirate,” it is believed that someone dropped this succinct phrase, mentioning Hopper.
An order from the military directorate, dated 1943, indicated that volunteer Grace Hopper was enrolled in the reserve of the United States Naval Forces by the way of exception. The fragile girl lacked about seven kilograms of weight to her 54 to become a sailor in the regular fleet.
But, owing to the difficult political situation, she was taken to the reserve. As a junior lieutenant, Grace Hopper opened the door of the Harvard University Navy Computing Laboratory for the first time. The motherland needed her brain.
Becoming the first woman in IT, Grace Hopper often remembered with a smile how she entered this sphere. In the laboratory, she first saw the great-great-computer Mark I. It was a giant machine of 4.5 tons, occupying an area of several tens of square meters.
Now it seems funny, but Mark I was significantly inferior to modern calculators in children’s toys, multiplying two numbers for a full six seconds. In fact, it was a new generation of electric adding machines.
And even though it could store only 72 numbers in memory, its power was enough to replace the labor of about 20 operators with conventional handheld devices. It was the first automatic calculating machine to completely exclude humans from the workflow of counting.
‘We’ve always done it this way!’ It is the most dangerous phrase in the language
“Life was simple before World War II. After that, we had systems”, Grace Hopper said about that period. She worked with these systems with great enthusiasm until in 1952 she created the world’s first compiler A-0, making one of the most important discoveries in computing.
It all started with the fact that after the war, Hopper, together with a group of engineers, developed the UNIVAC I computer. This unit was much smarter than the previous one and performed multiplication in 0.002 seconds.
The Grace Hopper compiler was very simple, so it was not immediately appreciated in the nascent world of high performance computing. She wrote the subroutines that she used most often in the form of machine code on a cassette. Each was assigned a unique number.
It was a breath of fresh air in programming — the corresponding subroutine could now be activated just by specifying its number. Grace Hopper taught the world how to write a program in your own language and then use a compiler to turn the text into machine code.
“Well, the work of a programmer has become closer to that of a mathematician,” she rejoiced. But not for a long time. At first, no one used a working compiler. Then Grace took matters into her own hands: in 1954 she headed the programming automation department.
“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things”, she used this metaphor to urge colleagues that were avoiding innovations in programming.
Go ahead and do it: you’ll always have time to make excuses later
By the way, in 1985 she rose to the rank of Rear Admiral — and became one of the first women in this position. Hopper retired at the age of almost 80 years.
In programming, Grace Hopper is the progenitor of the COmmon Business Oriented Language. COBOL was maintained and developed until 2020. And the programmers began to affectionately call the creator herself “COBOL granny”.
Hopper lived a very busy life: a college at Yale University and a destroyer of the US Pacific Fleet were named after her, she received more than 40 honorary degrees from universities in different countries.
There is an association called Hoppers, created by women at Microsoft, that supports programmers. The Grace Hopper Memorial Conference of Women Computer Scientists is being held every year.
But she also went down in history as a programmer who coined the term debugging — it means finding bugs in a program. Indeed, while working with Mark I, Hopper once discovered a breakdown, a real bug — a moth that was stuck there. Curiously, this moth is now added to the list of artifacts at the National Museum of American History in Washington — pasted into a laboratory journal.
Hopper was unusually creative and resourceful. For example, with the help of ropes and a bowl of pepper, she was able to explain to students what nano- and macroparticles are, she loved to share her experience with young people for a long time and to be “on the same wavelength” with students.
“If you ask me which of my accomplishments I am most proud of, the answer is all the young people I have taught over the years of teaching”, said Grace Hopper. “This is more important than the first compiler I wrote”.