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Summary Article: Hopper, Grace Murray
from American Women of Science since 1900

1906–1992

Mathematician, Computer Scientist

Education: B.A., math and physics, Vassar College, 1928; M.A., Yale University, 1930, Ph.D., mathematics, 1934

Professional Experience: assistant, mathematics, Vassar College, 1931–1934, instructor, 1934–1939, assistant to associate professor, 1939–1946; research fellow, engineering science and applied physics, Computational Laboratory, Harvard University, 1946–1949; systems engineer, UNIVAC Division, Eckert-Mauchly Corporation (later Remington Rand and Sperry), 1949–1953, director, Automatic Programming, 1953–1959, chief engineer, 1959–1961, staff scientist, 1961–1971; Special Advisor to Commander, Naval Data Automation Command, U.S. Department of Navy, 1967–1986; consultant, Digital Equipment Corporation, 1986–1992

Concurrent Positions: adjunct professor, Moore School of Electrical Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, 1963–1971; professor, George Washington University, 1971–1978

Grace Hopper was a mathematician whose achievements in the design of software for digital computers spanned three computer generations. She is best known for her contribution to early programming languages, in particular the development of COBOL (or Common Business Oriented Language), a more accessible programming language intended for universal business applications. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Vassar College in 1928, she taught mathematics there for 15 years, rising through the ranks to associate professor, and completing both a master's and a doctorate in mathematics from Yale University. During World War II, she took a leave of absence to join the U.S. Navy's Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services (WAVES), where she spent three years working on ordnance problems at the Harvard computer laboratory. In 1946, she resigned from Vassar to take an assistantship at Harvard to continue work on computer software. She had joined the U.S. Naval Reserves in 1943 and it was under these auspices that she worked on the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard, developing a programmable digital computer for the Navy. She then moved to the Eckert-Mauchly Corporation (which sold to Remington Rand, then Sperry, and much later became known as Unisys) to head its automatic programming section for the UNIVAC computer.

Hopper retired officially in 1971 and taught for several years at George Washington University before returning to active military duty for what was essentially a second phase of her career designing computer software as head of the programming language section. By the time she retired a second time in 1986, she was the oldest officer on active duty in the Navy to hold the rank of commodore (subsequently changed to rear admiral). In 1996, four years after her death, the U.S. Navy missile destroyer ship, the USS Hopper (nicknamed “Amazing Grace”), was launched in memory of her service and contributions to computer science. In addition to her numerous conference papers and journal articles, Hopper co-authored a textbook, Understanding Computers (1984).

Hopper was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1973. She received honorary degrees from at least 10 universities in the United States and abroad. She received an Achievement Award of the Society of Women Engineers (1964) and was named “Man of the Year” by the Data Processing Management Association (1969). Hopper received many of her highest honors and recognition after her retirement, including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (1986), a Computer History Museum Fellow Award (1987), and the National Medal of Technology (1991). In 1971, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) created the Grace Murray Hopper Award for Outstanding Young Computer Professionals in her name. She was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Franklin Institute, Association of Computer Programmers and Analysts, Association for Computing Machinery, and in 1973 was the first American (and first woman) named a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society.

Further Resources
  • Williams, Kathleen Broome. 2001. Improbable Warriors: Women Scientists and the US Navy in World War II. Naval Institute Press Annapolis, MD.
  • Williams, Kathleen Broome. 2004. Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea. Naval Institute Press Annapolis, MD.
  • Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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