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A Navy Admiral who was a woman and a computer scientist was certainly unusual. However Grace Hopper, who became both, was an unusual person.

Born Grace Brewster Murray in New York City on December 9, 1906, she amazed her mother by disassembling several alarm clocks when she was seven to find out how they worked.

She was admitted to Vassar at the age of 17, missing out on admission at 16 because her Latin grades were too low! She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1928, with a major in mathematics and physics.  She then went on to get her Masters at Yale in 1930, followed by the Ph.D. in mathematics under the direction of the Norwegian mathematician Øystein Ore in 1934. In 1930 (the year she got her Masters from Yale) she married Vincent Foster Hopper. They were divorced in 1945.

In 1943 she got a leave of absence from Vassar, where she had been appointed associate professor in 1941 (after being hired to teach mathematics in 1931), to join the U. S. Navy Reserve. She was trained at Smith and then transfered to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard. After the war she continued to serve in the Naval Reserve, despite being turned down (because of age) for a position in the regular Navy. In 1949 she turned down a full professorship at Vassar and instead began working for Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation, which was then acquired by Remington Rand in 1950.  There she became involved in the development of early computers, including UNIVAC and developed an early compiler at a time people thought computers could only solve mathematical problems.

She became a technical consultant for the committee that developed from the  Conference on Data Systems Languages, helping define COBOL, a basic computer language still used as a standard in business, and she championed the concept of decentralized computing, using nodes. She was also heavily involved in pioneering standards for COBOL and FORTRAN.  Having retired from the Navy with the rank of commander, she was recalled to active duty twice, finally retiring at the age of 79 as a Rear Admiral. The retirement party was held on the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston Harbor. She was awarded the highest medel for a non-combatant, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.

Grace Hopper proved that without a doubt women could contribute to sciences long held to be the province of men. Certainly, as I type this on an advanced computer that is to the UNIVAC as a jet plane is to a wagon, I have to say that we all owe a debt to people like Admiral Grace Hopper, who was a pioneer in numerous ways, and who stands as an example of what women can do, if given the chance.

Internet References:

Grace Murray Hopper

Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 04:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech.

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