Monday, April 06, 2015

Grace Murray Hopper, the mother of COBOL

When she was 7, Grace Murray began taking apart the alarm clocks in her house to see if she could put them back together. She couldn't. After she took apart her seventh clock, her mother caught on and convinced her to keep the number of broken clocks down to one. It was 1914. Women's suffrage (the right to vote) was nearing. Opportunities were opening for females. Walter and Mary Murray were giving their oldest daughter as much encouragement and support as possible, and the world should be grateful for those broken clocks.

This is not a vignette about the "first woman" -- although she is that, too. This is vignette about the mathematician who made it possible to for computers to do more than arithmetic.

Born New York City on December 9, 1906, young Grace was inquisitive and smart. At 16 she applied for Vassar but failed the Latin exam. A year later, she entered the prestigious school, graduating with a degree in math and physics four years later. A master's in 1930 from Yale led to a doctoral degree from Yale in 1934. PBS noted, "This wasn't just rare for a woman: statistics show only 1,279 math PhDs were awarded between 1862 and 1934, the year Hopper received hers."

By then, she already was Grace Hopper, having married New York University professor Vincent Foster Hopper in 1930. She began teaching math at her alma mater, Vassar, in 1931. Her academic and teaching career went well -- promoted to associate professor in 1941 -- but World War II broke out. She tried to join the Navy but she had three strikes against her: She was 15 pounds below the weight limit, at 37 she was too old, and she held an essential civilian job as a math teacher. Nevertheless, she was resilient and in June 1944, the Navy commissioned her as a lieutenant in the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service corps -- WAVES. Her job was to work on the Mark I, a electromechanical machine to compute navigation calculations. When she reported to her commander -- Professor Howard H. Aiken, a Naval Reserve officer -- at her military base -- Harvard -- he asked her, "Where the hell have you been?" He pointed to his Mark I computing machine, saying "Here, compute the coefficients of the arc tangent series by next Thursday."

That was a moment that would change the computer world, as well as help win the war. Grace Hopper took to computing like Johnny Weissmuller took to water. She wrote a 500-page Manual of Operations for the Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator for the Mark I. Then she began working on the Mark II. Her marriage ended with the war, as did her hopes of joining the regular Navy. At 38, the Navy considered Hopper was too old for full-time active duty as a lieutenant.

But she stayed in the Reserves and stayed with computers, working on the UNIVAC,  the second commercial computer produced in the United States, which was the daughter of the first one, the ENIAC. Wikipedia noted, "To promote sales, the company joined with CBS to have UNIVAC I predict the result of the 1952 Presidential election. UNIVAC I predicted Eisenhower would have a landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson whom the pollsters favored. The result was a greater public awareness of computing technology."

The government, military, and insurance companies were early customers.

Her job was as a programmer. Her first breakthrough was having an operational compiler in 1952. She said later, "Nobody believed that. I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. They told me computers could only do arithmetic."

This grew out of one of the great motivators of invention: laziness (or energy conservation, as we homo slothus prefer to call it). She told an interviewer later, "My hope was the programmer may return to being a mathematician."

In 1954, they put her in charge of automatic programming and her department came up with computer languages. She believed program could be written i a language closer to English. That philosophy is behind COBOL -- COmmon Business-Oriented Language -- which she helped develop. It was designed by Howard Bromberg, Howard Discount, Vernon Reeves, Jean E. Sammet, William Selden, and Gertrude Tierney, and it first appeared in 1959. Note that two of the six designers were women. Math class may be tough but people in either sex can master math.

Meanwhile, Grace Hopper rose in rank to Navy captain until she was forced to retire from the Reserves upon turning 60 in 1966. But they brought her back the next year on temporary recall for an indefinite period of time. A promotion to commodore and finally, in 1985, to admiral followed. She was one of the first women promoted to admiral. She retired the next year.

At age 80.

She died at 85 in 1992. They buried her in Arlington. They say Admiral Hopper had no children. I say she is an antecedent of  anyone who is now using a computer. She was an exceptional American because when she was given the opportunity, she was ready. Age, size and occupation could not stop her from joining the Navy and changing the world.

All the previous Exceptional Americans. The book will be out soon.


  1. Whatta dame! How nice to learn how COBOL came about. When I was in engineering school I loved, loved, loved learning to program in COBOL as well as FORTRAN and BASIC. Now I know the rest of the story. Thanks, Don!

  2. Most of this I knew, for which I consider myself fortunate. I recall reading that she found the first computer bug, from which the name came--it was a moth shorting two electrical terminals.

  3. I had the great honor and privilege to attend a talk she gave in Atlanta.

    It was and shall forever be one of the highest points in my life.

    Utterly amazing person, nothing short of being able to attend something like that and hearing her speak can do justice to the experience.

    I remain in awe of her to this day and probably always will.

    Small wonder she became my number one hero and inspiration. Do we still have people like that?

  4. Computing the coefficents of the power series for the arc tangent is ridiculously easy.

  5. I was a programmer for about 45 years. I wrote programs in many, many languages - some of which you can't find in Wikipedia.

    COBOL is my all time favorite for business applications. You could sit with a customer who had never seen a program before and step him through the logic and computations. This was a Godsend as programmers usually don't understand things like "2/10 net 30" or "Sum of the Year's Digits".

  6. I saw her give a small talk on television. Amazing person.
    She was talking about the effect of computing speed. She walked out with a 300M spool of wire on one shoulder, and a 300mm piece of wire in one hand, to show the difference between a microsecond and a nanosecond. Simple and effective.

    And yes, Jim, TODAY it is amazingly easy, thanks to people like Admiral Hopper.

    1. Calculating the coefficents of the power series of the arc tangent was ridiculously easy in the 17th century.

  7. It's good to read the story of Grace Murray Hopper here. It seems an interesting story and many people might be looking for this particular story.