Women’s History Month: Grace Hopper

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.” – Grace Murray Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper definitely resisted the idea that if something had always been done one way, then that was that. A pioneer both in the field of computer  science and in the Navy, Hopper was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal, a Naval Reserve Medal, a World War II Victory Medal, and a National Medal of Technology, among many others; has been honored as a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Computer Sciences “Man of the Year,” and with more honorary doctorates (eight in 1984 alone) than I could ever hope to have space to list. But among all of her accomplishments and honors, Grace Hopper may be best known today for coining a phrase that millions of people use: “debugging.”

To understand how that came about, it helps to know about Hopper’s journey from college professor to computer programmer. Born in New York City in 1906, Hopper demonstrated a deep curiosity about the world from an early age. At age 17 she entered Vassar College, majoring in mathematics and physics and graduating Phi Beta Kappa. She received a master’s degree and Ph.D from Yale, and for twelve years taught math at Vassar. In 1943, Hopper joined the U.S. Naval Reserve, and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation, at Harvard Univeristy. There, Hopper was the third programmer of the Mark I computer, the first large-scale digital computer; in time, she would also work on the Mark II and Mark III.

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