Remembering Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper, who introduced the term "nanosecond," paved the way for today's computer programmers.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

It has always been a goal of mine to remember the people who have shaped our industry like Grace Hopper. At the very least, I have enjoyed seeing these people at conferences and industry events. In doing so, I have gained valuable insights into them as individuals and as industry leaders.

One of my earliest encounters with Admiral Grace Hopper took place in Burlingame, California in the mid 1970's. Grace was speaking at a group meeting of a professional computer organization.  I believe it was the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

Grace, who was nearly 70 years old when I saw her, was a retired US Navy officer. She stayed in the Navy throughout her career. She was also on the original committee that developed COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language). COBOL was a computer programming language designed and used primarily for business applications.

Before COBOL was developed, however, Grace helped develop earlier computer programs. Since she believed that computer programs should be written in English, Grace played a key role in the development for Remington Rand of the B-0 compiler for the Univac I, which later became known as the FLOW-MATIC. This compiler was created to translate a language that could be used for standard business tasks like automated billing and payroll calculation. Clearly, this was the beginning of business intelligence.

Although FLOW-MATIC is less well known than COBOL, it indeed paved the way for later computer programs. The FLOW-MATIC was able to “understand” twenty statements in English. As the only business-oriented programming language being used prior to COBOL, many experts believe that COBOL would never have been developed without FLOW-MATIC as its predecessor.

COBOL, which was intended for the business user, made it possible for computers to respond to words instead of numbers unlike Assembler and Fortran which were base on numbers.

Despite this huge achievement, Grace maintained a modest attitude. Upon being asked how she developed COBOL she once lightheartedly stated, "It really came about because I couldn't balance my checkbook."

Grace, wearing her uniform as she frequently did, told us about herself. She attended Vassar as an undergraduate and received her masters and PhD from Yale. Although she was often known as Dr. Hopper, she introduced herself to me as “Grace.” Grace had special military training in amphibious assaults. When looking at this small, elderly woman, it was hard to imagine her leading the charge on Iwo Jima or Tarawa. But that was her military specialty.

Grace proudly wears her US Navy uniform.

One story particularly shows Grace’s patriotism. When questioned who she was with at an airport, Grace replied "the US Navy." The person at the airport said, "You must be the oldest one we have." This effectively shows Grace’s patriotism, even at an older age.

Grace spiced her talk with many amusing anecdotes. One such story regarded the increasing speed of computers, where she introduced the idea of the "nanosecond." She showed the nanosecond to be the distance that electricity traveled over an 18 inch wire, which she willingly distributed to audience members. She pointed out that computers would eventually become faster and smaller, which was a prescient observation in the 1970's.

Similarly, Grace had many interesting observations. On the building of bigger computers: "In pioneer days they used oxen for heavy pulling, and when one ox couldn't budge a log, they didn't try to grow a larger ox. We shouldn't be trying for bigger computers, but for more systems of computers."

Grace also made an insightful observation on information and knowledge. She said, "We're flooding people with information. We need to feed it through a processor. A human must turn information into intelligence or knowledge. We've tended to forget that no computer will ever ask a new question."

She told a story about how the computer term "bug" came to be in our vocabulary. Apparently, in the early days of computing there were vacuum tubes and wire meshes. The wire meshes were the early memory devices of the computer. One day the computer she was working on ceased to function. Upon examination, someone found that a bug had found its way into the wire mesh and had fried itself in the process. By entangling itself in the wire mesh, the bug had short circuited the CPU.

Since then, whenever someone looks for the cause of a program or computer malfunction it is called "debugging" the computer.

Grace received numerous awards for both her commitment to her country and technology. Some of these awards included: Man-of-the-Year, Data Processing Management Association, 1969; Legion of Merit, 1973; Distinguished Fellow, British Computer Society, 1973; National Medal of Technology; Navy Meritorious Service Medal, 1980 and Defense Distinguished Service Medal, 1986. Grace received 47 honorary degrees as well.

Today, there is even an award in her name. The Grace Murray Hopper Award is given to the outstanding young computer professional of the year. It is based on a single recent major technical or service contribution.

I was honored to shake her hand at the end of her presentation. She was truly one of the founding pioneers of the computer profession, and has left her mark in many ways that are not yet evident today.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Grace was her attitude. Whereas many current technicians think about how their contributions will benefit themselves, Grace believed she was merely setting the stage for others to follow. Today’s wunderkind oftentimes do not recognize the work that has preceded them. They also fail to recognize that others will build on their contributions in the future. Grace Hopper never gave that impression, not even once.

 

Bill Inmon is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations. Bill can be reached at 303-681-6772.

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