Grace Hopper, a.k.a “Amazing Grace,” a.k.a “Grandma COBOL”

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I was writing an article entitled Ask for Pardon, Not Permission, and the whole theory of it was based on a quote by Grace Hopper. “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” It is really an interesting idea, if you think about it. Grace Hopper, a Naval officer, would have been surrounded by higher ranking Navy officers; however, in many instances the opportunity to act does not always allow time to ask for permission. Also, the Navy, like any other armed forces branch of the government (or the government itself), is a never-ending bureaucratic system–fubar, if you will. Sometimes the hassle of receiving permission is not worth it. The effort to receive said permission is painstakingly worse than any potential punishment that you would receive in acting on your best judgement.

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If you ask for permission, you already believe that your idea is the best option. What happens if your request for permission is denied? At this point you could act, but would receive punishment for both the action and insubordination. I’ve never served in the armed forces, but from every movie that I have ever seen, it seems that this happens a lot. The protagonist of the story is denied permission to do what he feels in his heart is right, yet he does it anyway and usually is vindicated and lauded. While this is great for the box office, the article I was working on is more of a look at how this principle is used by our presidents; how presidents act, outside of the spectrum of the powers given to them by the United States Constitution, and never receive punishment. That article is to come; however, I was so fascinated by Grace Hopper that I wanted to write a quick article about her.

United States Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was a pioneer in the computer programming field. Receiving her bachelor’s degree from Vassar, Grace Hopper went on to receive her Master’s degree and Ph.D. from Yale. She went back to Vassar, to teach mathematics, until she enlisted, in World War II. In 1943, Grace Hopper was sworn in to the United States Navy Reserve, as a member of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program. The Navy enrolled her into the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she graduated first in her class. Grace Hopper was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project, at Harvard University, and served on the Mark I computer programming staff. The Mark I computer, under the operation of Howard H. Aiken, was the first operating machine that could execute long computations, automatically. In 1952, she created the first working program compiler. In 1959, she and several other prominent computer programmers met at the Conference on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL) and defined the new computer programming language COBOL.

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As Grace Hopper continued her work for the Navy, she also worked with the Department of Defense to establish their centralized computer database system and programming standards to be used for said system. While most of what she accomplished is “Greek to me,” I am familiar and have often heard the common term “debugging.” While there is debate of whether or not she was the first to coin the phrase, she certainly popularized it. In 1947, while working on a Mark II Computer, at Harvard University, her associates discovered a moth stuck in a relay, which caused the system to quit working. It was here that she said that they were “debugging” the system. The remains of the moth can be found in the log book at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. (Picture right)

Of much importance to America and the world, Grace Hopper was called out of retirement several times. Her final retirement ceremony took place on the USS Constitution on August 14, 1986. At the age of 79 years, eight months and five days, she was the oldest serving member of the United States Navy. During her lifetime she would be awarded the Data Processing Management Association’s “computer sciences man of the year” award; the Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society award, the first American to receive it; the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Department of Defense’s highest non-combat award; the Computer History Museum Fellow Award; the Toastmasters International’s Golden Gavel Award and the National Medal of Technology award. After her death, on January 1st, 1992, she would continue to receive recognition and praise. Many government buildings, facilities, and parks have been named after her, but the best of these–in my opinion–was the USS Hopper. This destroyer was ordered on April 8, 1992, and was commissioned on September 6, 1997. The USS Hopper ports out of Pearl Harbor and is still active.

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1 COMMENT

  1. I watched a video of her speaking once. She was famous for taking a piece of thin glass tubing and saying, this is how far light travels in a nano-second, this in a millisecond. True great thinkers can communicate complex ideas.

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