Google Doodle Celebrates Grace Hopper's Birthday
Written by Historian   
Monday, 09 December 2013

Today's Google Doodle reminds us that Grace Hopper, the "Mother of Cobol" was born on December 9, 1906. 



As you can see from the code that appears when the animation runs, Cobol was a very wordy language - making it easy-to-understand. As such it was readily adopted as the language of business and it still widely in use today.

At the end of the Google Doodle, notice the nice touch of a "bug" that flies out of the machine. This is a reference to the fact that Grace Hooper is credited for inventing the term "bug" to apply to coding problems. Even though she may not actually have coined the term as was already in use, the story of the "bug" in the machine has gone into computer history. The Harvard Mark I, the huge and slow electro-mechanical computer built by Howard Aiken for the US Navy was acting up and giving incorrect results. An internal examination located the faulty relay and there jammed between the contacts was a moth - beaten to death by the rapid opening and closing of the relay! The moth was removed and taped into the machine's log book with the note "First ACTUAL bug found".



The log book complete with bug is now in the National Museum of American History


December 9, 2013 is the also the start of Computer Science Education Week and this is no co-incidence. The date of this annual event was chosen to include this anniversary due to Grace Hopper's interest in promoting programming skills to young people, and girls in particular and part of her legacy has been to inspire efforts to bring the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront.



Grace Brewster Murray Hopper,

December 9,1906- January 1,1992



Grace Brewster Murray certainly suffered, at first at least, from the disadvantage of being a woman with an interest in technology. Having earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale she could only look forward to teaching maths at no more than high school level - women were not expected to do any more. But Grace did manage to do more.

In 1931 she started to work her way up through the Vassar teaching hierarchy - first as an instructor, then as an assistant professor and finally as an associate professor. Just before this she married Vincent Hopper and so changed her name from Murray to Hopper. They divorced in 1945, an event which left her free to pursue her contributions to computing without having to fit into the stereotype of the time.

After the US entered the Second World War Grace Hopper joined the US Navy Reserve and served on the Mark I computer programming staff headed by Howard H. Aiken. At the end of the war Hopper's request to transfer to the regular Navy was declined due to her age (38). However, she continued to serve in the Navy Reserve.

Although she initially retired in 1966, she was recalled to active duty in August 1967 for a six-month period that turned into an indefinite assignment and her work on COBOL from 1967 to 1977 was as the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group in the Navy's Office of Information Systems Planning. When she finally retired in 1986 she was the oldest commissioned officer in the United States Navy and had rank attained the rank of Rear Admiral. So she had defeated ageism as well as sexism and was responsible for the continuous pressure within the industry to make computers and computing more accessible.

Throughout her long career Grace Hopper was concerned with training and education. 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."

To learn more about Grace Hopper and about COBOL see the following articles in our History Section.

Grace Hopper - The Mother of Cobol

The rise of people power - Computer languages in the 70's

Book Review - Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age


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