Women in STEM: Grace Hopper

This is part of an ongoing series which spotlights on the countless women in STEM fields. Today, we have something a little different for you: a woman who was both a computer scientist and naval officer. 

Grace Hopper was a computer scientist and naval officer. She earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from Vassar College in 1928. Grace went on to earn her master’s degree in at Yale, completing it in 1930. In 1934 she completed her Ph.D. in mathematics at Yale. She was one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics.

While teaching mathematics at Vassar, she tried to enlist on the Navy to help in the WWII war efforts. Grace was initially denied because her position as a mathematician was too valuable, but after taking a leave of absence from Vassar and an exemption to enlist, she graduated from Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School first in her class. Because of this accomplishment she was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard university. She remained in the Harvard Computation Lab until 1949. While working at Harvard, she noticed that a moth had gotten into the Mark II computer. Because of this she is credited with the term “computer bug.”

In 1949, Grace began working in the private computer industry at Eckert-Maichly Computer Corporation. She had the idea to develop a programming language using English words instead of the complicated machine language, and she went on to develop the first compiler after only 3 years, the A compiler. She also developed programming languages to compliment the compiler.  After this achievement she was named director of automatic programming and developed compiler based programming languages at Remington Rand, which took over Eckert-Maichly in 1950.

She retired in 1966, after being promoted to the rank of Commander. But returned back to active duty twice to help adapt communication between different languages, before finally retiring involuntarily in 1986, as the oldest active duty commissioned officer. She was awarded the highest non-combat award given by the Department of Defense, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. In 1973 she was promoted to the rank of Captain for her work in the Navy Programming Languages Group. She was still working as a senior consultant at Digital Equipment Corporation when she passed at age 85.

Today she is honored by the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Engineering thrown annually by the Anita Borg Institute. The celebration is to continue her legacy of mentoring and teaching young women to program. This is the largest gathering of women in technology in the world. In 1997 a guided missile destroyer was commissioned by the Navy. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

-Margaret Magro


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