The Myth of Grace: A BIT of Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age (MIT Press BITS)
Kurt W. Beyer
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This MIT Press BIT is excerpted from the 2009 MIT Press publication Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age by Kurt W. Beyer.
The career of computer visionary Grace Murray Hopper paralleled the meteoric trajectory of the postwar computer industry. This BIT describes the myth of "amazing Grace" and tells how she became "the third programmer of the world's first computer."
Professor Hopper had established herself as a respected member of the Vassar faculty. She had mastered the art of teaching, but part of her still yearned to move beyond the Poughkeepsie campus and rub shoulders with the elite in her field. That year she decided to apply for the Vassar faculty fellowship, which permitted recipients a one-year sabbatical in order to pursue research or coursework at another institution. Hopper chose to study with the celebrated mathematician Richard Courant at New
this machine worked, how to program this thing, and so on. As I like to remind her, she didn’t know a computer from a tomato basket at the time.”43 In fact, as of July 1944 the 23-year-old Bloch knew little more than his pupil; he had acquired only 3 months of coding experience before Hopper’s arrival. What Bloch lacked in experience he made up for in drive and determination. A consummate overachiever, he had majored in mathematics, minored in physics, and played in the Harvard band, and in 1941
Navy Waves (Wayside, 1988). 21. Hopper, interview, 15 July 1968 (COH-SI), 25. 22. Ibid., 25–26. 23. Ibid. 24. Ibid., 26–27. 25. Ibid., 27–28. 26. Ibid. 27. For more on Aiken, see I. Bernard Cohen, Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer Pioneer (MIT Press, 1999). 28. Grace Hopper, interview by Christopher Evans, 1976, 2 (OHC-CB); Anthony G. Oettinger, “Retiring Computer Pioneer—Howard Aiken,” Communications of the ACM 5, no. 6 (1962): 298–299. 29. Cohen, Howard Aiken, 146, During the
Grandmother of Cobol” and numerous quotations from Hopper herself. An image search produces hundreds of pictures of the petite, heavily wrinkled computer programmer proudly wearing her Navy uniform in the twilight of her career. There is no denying that Grace Murray Hopper became a minor celebrity during the autumn of her career, or that she came to personify computer programming and the programming profession. But Hopper’s career may have gone unnoticed by the public had it not been for an
faced with a teaching load of five or six courses per semester. Instead, Hopper took what came to her and turned it to her advantage. “[The courses] had gotten into terrible doldrums,” she recalled, “and I brought in new texts and new materials, and above all I brought in new applications. I began dumping in a little non-Euclidean [geometry] so they could begin to understand the new concepts of space. See, all of that was new then—all the Einstein stuff was brand new and exciting, and it was fun