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Have you been on Google today? That’s a rhetorical question, really — I know you have. If so, you may have noticed today’s Google doodle. Or maybe not — maybe you looked at it and thought, huh, that’s a pretty big computer. Or maybe you didn’t even notice it. Regardless, we should all take notice — it’s Grace Hopper’s birthday; she would have been 107. And Grace Hopper is pretty awesome and important. Those of you asking, “Who the hell is Grace Hopper?” will learn something today, courtesy of Google and GFR.
Mathlete Grace Hopper gave us the gift of at least somewhat comprehensible computer programming languages. See, back in the day, computers were these mysterious, monolithic devices. Check out the one below. It’s called the Harwell Dekatron, and with its 1951 birthday, it’s the oldest working digital computer in the world. There were roughly a dozen computers in existence back then, and let’s just say that no one carried them back and forth between home and the office. I mean, they don’t even have little apples on them and they don’t play that weird chime music when you turn them on. What are those things?!
Computers became a major strategic factor in World War II. British codebreakers used the Colossus, the first electronic digital computer, to decipher encrypted telegraph messages to and from German High Command. Here in America during that same time, the Manhattan Project, including Richard Feynman, researched and developed atomic bombs. Grace Hopper was a computer tech on the Manhattan Project, and after that she went on to Univac where she developed the A-O system, which stands for Arithmetic Language version 0, which was used on the 1951 UNIVAC 1 computer. The system is the first computer compiler (though it operated more like a linker or loader). In a nutshell, it translated the program specification into a machine code, which they could put back into the computer to execute the program. From there Hopper wrote FLOW-MATIC, a data processing language that formed the foundation for COBOL, one of the first programming languages and certainly the one that the saw the most early use.
The revolutionary aspect of Hopper’s programming was her use of language, rather than symbols or mathematics. She’s the one who came up with coding verbs, such as “input,” “go to,” “write,” “close,” etc. Yeah — that’s Hopper! I would’ve been pretty lost without her. Apparently she did meet opposition writing FLOW-MATIC, as scientists challenged the idea of a computer understanding English. Hopper just laughed.
And then she worked for the Navy, where she got the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, which is the highest Department of Defense award for those not in combat. When she retired at age 79, she had achieved the rank of rear admiral and was the oldest commissioned officer on active duty in the country. Then she consulted for Digital Equipment Corporation, where she gave talks, did crazy math, offered expertise, and was just generally awesome until she died in 1985. Oh, and she went on Letterman when she was 80. Enough said.
Happy Birthday to the first lady of software.