Grace Murray Hopper
Inventor of the Computer Language Compiler
Hopper was born in New York City on December 9, 1906. She did her undergraduate work in mathematics and physics at Vassar College, earning her degree in 1928. She earned her Ph.D in mathematics from Yale University in 1934. Hopper returned to Vassar as a faculty member in mathematics. She remained on the faculty until 1943, when she joined the Naval Reserve. The following year, HOWARD AIKEN’s Computation Project at Harvard hired Hopper to work on the Mark I, the first full scale programmable computer in the United States, which debuted that year.
Hopper joined the Eckert Mauchly Corporation in 1949. Eckert Mauchly completed UNIVAC I, the first large scale commercial computer, and Hopper headed the UNIVAC programming group. The company merged with Sperry Rand; Hopper continued to work as a senior programmer in the UNIVAC division. In 1952, while at Sperry Rand, she developed A0, the first compiler. Compilers translate higher level programmed instructions to machine level code. She also developed B0, an English language based compiler, later called FLOWMATIC; it allowed UNIVAC I and II to understand over 20 programmed English based statements.
Hopper then headed the team that developed the first standardized computer language, COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language). Previously, each new computer that was developed had used its own specific coding for programmed instructions. COBOL was introduced in 1960.
Hopper was forced to retire from the Naval Reserves in 1967 due to her age; however, the Navy recalled her to active duty seven months later to help standardize the Navy’s computer languages. She lectured on the topic of standardization frequently, and covered other topics as well, including her criticism of the industry’s bias toward large computers.
Hopper retired from Sperry Rand in 1971. On her retirement, the UNIVAC division established the Association of Computing Machinery’s (ACM’s) annual Grace Murray Hopper Award; the award goes to an impressive young computer professional active in the field.
She retired from the Navy as a rear admiral in 1986 but continued as a senior consultant with Digital Equipment Corporation. She died on January 1, 1992, in Arlington, Virginia.
Grace Murray Hopper’s Legacy
Hopper came to computer science as the field was being invented. She helped to steer its course through her groundbreaking innovations in computer languages, including the development of the first compilers and standardized computer language (COBOL), and through her insistence on establishing industry standards.
Hopper’s work to create standards in computer languages was important to the early development of the field. Lack of standards was not only costly to government and private companies, it limited the development of computers, as incompatibilities between languages used by different machines, even within single companies, caused duplication of effort and great waste. Frequently, hardware and software had to be discarded as new generations of machines and languages developed that were not backwards compatible to older ones.
Hopper’s FLOWMATIC, the first English language data processing compiler, represented a huge step forward in computing capabilities. Early computer languages were composed of mathematical symbols; Hopper’s insistence that such languages could be written in English made the development of new languages and programs an easier task. The common business oriented language COBOL, which Hopper’s team developed, was the first English based programming language to have wide scale commercial applications. While it is not used today to write new programs, its legacy is still felt; many older programs still in service today were written in COBOL.
Grace Murray Hopper – 19061992