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Women in STEM: Grace Hopper

Women in STEM: Grace Hopper

The field of computer science and information technology has long been dominated by men. The names John Atanasoff and Bill Gates are commonly tossed around the field, but very few women are known for their work. One woman followed her passion from a young age and helped create one of the world’s most commonly used order-processing business software today.

Grace Brewster Hopper (neé Murray) was born in New York City on December 9, 1906. As a child, Hopper was always intellectually curious, having repeatedly dismantled and rebuilt her alarm clocks. She received her Bachelor’s Degree from Vassar College in 1928, her Master’s from Yale University in 1930, and her Doctorate from the same institution in 1934. After World War II broke out, she joined the Navy and was recruited into the computing sector given her strong background in mathematics and physics. She worked at Harvard for a period of time, working with the Mark II and Mark III computers. Shortly after completing these projects, Hopper moved into private industry, first with the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and then with Remington Rand, where she oversaw programming for the UNIVAC I (UNIVersal Automatic Computer I) computer. This was the second ever commercial computer produced in the United States.  In computer programming, a compiler is a program that transforms the original source code written from one programming language into another language. In 1952, she and her team created the first compiler for computer languages. This compiler was the beginning of the start of the Common Business Oriented Language, or COBOL, a widely adopted language that would be used around the world.

Hopper continued working on COBOL as the director of the Navy’s Programming Languages group until she was promoted to captain in 1973. As her time as captain, she put in work to sketch out and implement technological standards for the United States Navy. The tests and standards she developed were later adopted by the National Bureau of Standards (today called the National Institute of Standards and Technology and also known as NIST), and helped to shape the future of programming.

She received the title of commodore from the Navy in 1983 and finally retired in 1986 at the bright, old age of 80. Her final years in retirement were spent as a consultant for the Digital Equipment Corporation. She passed away from natural causes on January 1, 1992 and is buried with full military honors at the Arlington National Cemetery.

“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ’em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ’em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.” ~ Grace Hopper

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