Grace Hopper knew that computers would revolutionize human life. She fought conventional wisdom to make them accessible to everyone.
Children learn basic coding skills these days as early as elementary school. Smartphones have become extensions of people’s hands. Apps; extensions of their thoughts. Computers have integrated almost every aspect of life. Not too long ago, however, to most, they were a foreign and scary concept.
Computers were once enormous five-ton machines few people had ever seen, fewer could understand, and barely a handful could operate. The latter were highly trained mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists. Predominantly men, but one woman stood out among them. Her name was Grace Hopper.
Hopper was an American computer scientist, a United States Rear Admiral, and one of the programmers who developed the first large computer in the U.S. Most importantly, she was the first person to invent the compiler, a program that converted human language into computer code. By doing so, she democratized the use of computers.
Grace was the sort of seven-year-old who would dismantle alarm clocks because she wanted to understand how they worked. It took seven of them, but she got it. When she grew up and became one of the first programmers – among whom hardly any were women -, she was part of the team that, during World War II, developed the Harvard Mark 1 computer.
She believed computers should be accessible to all, not just programmers. For that to be possible, programming languages had to be as easy to understand as English. That view was not popular among her peers who “regarded themselves as ‘high priests,’ jealously guarding their status as intermediaries between ordinary people and the occult computer brain.”
But Grace said:
“The most dangerous phrase […] is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.”
Just as with the alarm clock, she questioned the way things worked. She broke down that thinking, found fault in it, challenged it.
She developed the compiler, a software that transformed source code from language written by a human to one a computer could process. FLOW-MATIC, this English-language-based computer language, would eventually become COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), which remains one of the most widely used languages today.
The magnitude of that invention is difficult to overstate; COBOL is one of the most important programming languages of the twentieth century. It made coding easy for anyone, and with that harnessed the power of computers for all and for practically any purpose. That it was developed by a woman at that time is even more inspiring. It is a testament to the place that women have in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).
Grace Hopper coined the word “bug” when she and her team found a glitch in a computer that was caused … by a bug in an electrical switch. She “debugged” the first computer, but also a limiting mindset: the gender gap in STEM is closing and computers are changing the world because of her contributions. Her nickname, Amazing Grace, is well deserved.