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Grace Murray Hopper

Remembering Grace Murray Hopper - A Legend in Her Own Time

By Elizabeth Dickason

Grace Murray Hopper

Grace Murray Hopper

Courtesy Norfolk Naval Center
Originally published by Norfolk Naval Center and Chips magazine
About the Author: Elizabeth Dickason is the Assistant Editor of Chips - The Department of the Navy Information Technology Magazine

Eighty-five-year-old Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper who dedicated her life to the Navy passed away on 1 January 1992. As a pioneer Computer Programmer and co-inventor of COBOL, she was known as the Grand Lady of Software, Amazing Grace and Grandma COBOL. She'll be remembered for her now famous sayings, one of which is "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."

It's only fitting that Grace Brewster Murray was born between two such memorable events as the Wright Brothers' first successful power-driven flight in 1903 and Henry Ford's introduction of the Model T in 1908. Taught by her father at an early age to go after what she wanted, Grace's life consisted of one success after another, including the significant contributions she made to the computer age and the Navy.

Grace Murray Hopper - Education and Introduction to Computers

Young Grace's diligence and hard work paid off when in 1928 at the age of 22 she was graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College. She then attended Yale University, where she received an MA degree in Mathematics and Physics in 1930 and a Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1934. Hopper began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931 where her first year's salary was $800. She stayed there until she joined the United States Naval Reserve in December 1943.

Upon graduation, she was commissioned a LTJG and ordered to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University. There she became the first programmer on the Navy's Mark I computer, the mechanical miracle of its day. Hopper's love of gadgets caused her to immediately fall for the biggest gadget she'd ever seen, the fifty-one foot long, 8 foot high, 8 foot wide, glass-encased mound of bulky relays, switches and vacuum tubes called the Mark I. This miracle of modern science could store 72 words and perform three additions every second.

Grace's love affair with the Mark I ended in a few short years when the UNIVAC I, operating a thousand times faster, won her affections.

In 1946, Grace Murray Hopper was released from active duty and joined the Harvard Faculty at the Computation Laboratory where her work continued on the Mark II and Mark III computers for the Navy. In 1949 she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia-later called Sperry Rand-where she designed the first commercial large-scale electronic computer called the UNIVAC I.

Grace Murray Hopper - COBOL

Grace Murray Hopper changed the lives of everyone in the computer industry by developing the Bomarc system, later called COBOL (common-business-oriented language). COBOL made it possible for computers to respond to words rather than numbers. Hopper often jokingly explained, "It really came about because I couldn't balance my checkbook."

Grace Murray Hopper - Naval Life

Murray Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve with the rank of Commander at the end of 1966. She was recalled to active duty in August of 1967 for what was supposed to be a six-month assignment at the request of Norman Ream, then Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy for Automatic Data Processing. After the six months were up, her orders were changed to say her services would be needed indefinitely. She was promoted to Captain in 1973 by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., Chief of Naval Operations. And in 1977, she was appointed special advisor to Commander, Naval Data Automation Command (NAVDAC), where she stayed until she retired.

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