Grace Hopper - The Mother of Cobol
Written by Historian   
Thursday, 06 December 2018
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Grace Hopper - The Mother of Cobol
Lifelong teacher

Towards a higher level language

At first she thought about ways of making machines easier to use by creating higher level languages. This again seems like an obvious move but at the time there were no compilers in existence let alone compilers that could produce efficient code.

In 1952 Hopper and her team at Remington wrote the A-0 compiler, almost just to show that it could be done. To make it all work they had to invent many of the fundamental techniques of translation. For example, she solved the problem of forward references by using a fixed jump area where the addresses of routines could be stored when they were discovered later in the program's text. Hopper claims that the idea came from her days playing women's basketball where the forward pass was well-used strategy. This same technique is still used today in all sorts of ways and the programmers who use it always think that it is very clever and ever so sophisticated! The belief that the computer was just a number cruncher and couldn't be used to translate or work with general symbols was so widespread that A-0 wasn't perceived as being particularly important.

In another attempt to widen horizons she wrote the first symbolic differentiator, i.e. a calculus program. Hopper invited people to bring her problems for solution. One poor man had been working for six months on the derivatives of a particularly horrible function - the machine spat out the first fifteen derivatives in 18 minutes. The man refused to believe that there wasn't a human hiding somewhere in the system!

At a more trivial level she demonstrated that a compiler could translate programs written in French and German into machine code. The company executives were shocked that a machine built in the USA could do anything in a foreign language!

The tide slowly turned in her favour and at last she was given the chance to put together a compiler for a large language - the B-0 compiler which then became Flow-matic in 1957. The language was targeted at business use and Hopper even felt that arithmetic expressions were too complicated for the average user and introduced a very wordy language - for example

Add One To Total

rather than

Total=Total+1

After the huge success of Fortran in providing a high level language for the scientific community the business community felt a little left out. The result was the Cobol language which included much of Flow-matic. Grace Hopper did much to influence the newer details of the Cobol language and, while she was not a working member of the final standards committee, there is no doubt that she deserves to be called the mother of Cobol.

Grace Hopper stayed in the Naval reserve all of the time that she was working on advanced uses of computers. Indeed she even applied to be transferred to the regular Navy at the end of the war but, at 40, she was deemed too old. In 1966 she retired with the rank of Commander but the Navy still needed her and seven months later she was asked to take on the job of standardizing the Navy's use of languages. She returned to active duty at 60 and was promoted to Captain.

Honours and awards

In 1969 the Data Processing Management Association selected her as their first "man" of the year. Something that I'm sure would have amused her as she held the view that women were in general better programmers than men! She had already, in 1964, been awarded the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award:

"In recognition of her significant contributions to the burgeoning computer industry as an engineering manager and originator of automatic programming systems."  

and was made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society in 1973, the first woman and the first American ever to be so honored.

In 1983 she was promoted to the rank of Commodore in a ceremony at the White House and in 1985 she was promoted to Rear Admiral - the same rank as that held by her grandfather. The following year she retired for the last time. At her retirement ceremony she reminded the assembled sailors that she was told at forty that she was too old for the navy and yet she had remained in uniform for the subsequent 40 years. All through her career with the Navy she had acted as a publicist - giving lectures. She estimated that she gave 200 lectures per year. 

Although aged 80 when she retired from the Navy she started a new career in public relations as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation. This involved her in delivering lectures about the early days of computers, her career, and on efforts that computer vendors could take to make life easier for their users. Although no longer a serving officer, she always wore her Navy full dress uniform to these lectures.

 

grace_hopperjpg

 

She died in 1992, certainly as the longest serving computer enthusiast of her day. 

Teacher and Role Model

Throughout her career Grace Hopper was concerned in promoting programming skills to young people. She is quoted by her biographer Lynn Gilbert as saying:

The most important thing I've accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, "Do you think we can do this?" I say, "Try it." And I back 'em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir 'em up at intervals so they don't forget to take chances."

 

gettingcoboltorun

 

Grace Hopper was chosen as the personality to embody the aims of Computer Science Education Week and its timing of the second week in December means that it the event always coincides with her birthday.

Lasting legacy

Her later years brought recognition for her many achievements. It was Grace Hopper who was the first to become a Fellow of the Computer History Museum in 1987. In 1991 she was awarded the National Medal of Technology and in the same year was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1994. Her most recent honor was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously awarded in 2016 by Barak Obama, which serves as an indication of how strong her influence remained almost a quarter of a century after her death.

An important part of Grace Hopper's legacy is that of being a successful woman in an industry dominated by men. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference is an annual event that is the recognized as as the world's largest gathering of women in Computing. Now presented by AnitaB.org and the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery), it was inaugurated by the Anitia Borg Institute in 1994 in order to bring the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront. 

Hopper gained the ACM Distinguished Service Award in 1983 and also had the distinction of having a prize named after her. Established in 1971, the ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award is currently worth $35,000, funded by Microsoft, and recognizes a single recent major technical or service contribution made by an individual aged 35 or younger.  Grace Hopper

Related Articles

Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age (book review)

Google Doodle Celebrates Grace Hopper's Birthday

Grace Hopper Honored With Presidential Medal of Freedom

History of Computer Languages - the classical decade, 1950s      

Computer Languages by Committee - the 1960s         

On this day in 1959 - COBOL Committee formed

Howard Aiken and the Harvard Mark I       

Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age (book review)

Grace Hopper & Computer Science Education Week

Grace Hopper - Building On Her Legacy 

Women In Computing

John Backus - the Father of Fortran

 

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