Google’s latest doodle displays a woman at her desk, sitting before a rather mammoth-sized, ancient looking computer. The woman featured is American computer Scientist and US Navy Captain Grace Hopper, creator of the Cobol Computer Language. Google have decided to honour her today on what would have been her 107th birthday.
Born Grace Brewster Murray in New York on 9th December 1906, she is the woman commonly credited with paving the way to building modern day computer languages. It was Hopper’s work which led to the development of Cobol, the first modern programming language which was independent from other machines.
We also have her to thank for coining the popular phrase “debugging”, coming from a time when a moth was actually found inside one of her computers, causing it to run slower.
Given 40 honorary degrees from various Universities worldwide during her lifetime, it’s easy to see how she gained the nickname “Amazing Grace”, but it was her time spent in the US Military Reserve during World War II where she first started working towards what would eventually become fundamental to her legacy.
Part of the Military’s research team, Hopper helped with the development of the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, dubbed the “electric brain” for helping calculate the trajectory for rockets, which was consequently later used in the making of the atomic bomb.
It was after the war though that Grace Hopper really started to make her mark, by pioneering key software technologies to allow the kind of modern computer languages which we see today. She was strong enough to persuade business leaders and government agencies that one common business computer language was needed. This system was Cobol, driven on by Hopper’s belief that a computer language should be written as close to real English as possible, trying to move away from computerised jargon.
Grace Hopper continued her work in the military throughout her working life and rose higher as the years passed. In 1973 she was promoted to Captain whilst working in the Navy Programming Languages Group in the Office of Information and Systems Planning, and she later standardised the Navy’s entire computer system.
Hopper’s work is still very much part of our every day lives in 2013. Every time you visit a cash machine to withdraw money, the system will use a Cobol program. Even filing taxes involves some kind of Cobol technology.
Hopper married once in 1930, to New York University professor Vincent Foster Hopper, until they divorced 15 years later in 1945. She kept her married name and never remarried.
Before her death on 1st January 1992, Grace Hopper was very much in demand to speak at different computer, technology and military events and she was known for her lively and sometimes derisive speaking style.
She was cremated at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honours.