If you can read this, thank Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. The “Grandmother of Computer Programming” not only revolutionized computing – she did it in service to the United States of America.
She was a Vassar mathematics professor when WWII broke out. She volunteered to serve her country in the WAVES program: “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.”
She was technically too old and too underweight for the program, but that didn’t stop her. She graduated first in her class from the Naval Reserve Midshipman’s School. The U.S. Navy assigned her to their massive new computation project at Harvard University.
She was 37, and it was her first time encountering a computer. But Grace Hopper, always eager to solve new problems, had a major realization: writing programs in binary took too long. The Navy needed a programming language that could convert English commands to zeroes and ones.
That language didn’t exist yet. So, she wrote it. COBOL – Common Business Oriented Language – changed computer programming as we know it.
After two decades of service, she retired from the Navy at age 60. But the Navy soon realized she was irreplaceable and begged her to come back. She would serve another 20 years before retiring again at age 80 – for real this time.
In her retirement, she often remarked that the many young programmers she trained were her greatest achievement – other than COBOL, of course. Ever looking towards the future, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper remained convinced that the best was yet to come:
An optimist as well as a visionary, Hopper celebrated the potential of computers. “I think we consistently…underestimate what we can do with computers if we really try,” she once said. In a 1983 interview on “60 Minutes,” host Morely Safer asked if the computer revolution was over. Hopper replied, “No, we’re only at the beginning…We’ve got the Model-T.”