Women in IT - The Story of Grace Hopper

Series: Women in IT
International Women's Day

International Women's Day, also known as International Women's Day, Women's Day or Women's Struggle Day, has been celebrated for one hundred years. Every year it is used to demonstrate for equal rights and against discrimination against women worldwide. This year the theme of the day is "More union, more equality, More than ever."

As part of this holiday, we would like to introduce you to a very important person in American history and international technology development - Grace Hopper.


Who was Grace Hopper?

In his essay "How Programming Became a Male Domain", American historian Nathan Ensmenger writes: "Programming was initially thought of as a job for low-status office workers - that is, for women. The discipline was only gradually consciously transformed into a high-status, scientific, male subject." One of these pioneering women from the early days of computer science was Grace Hopper.

She was born in New York City on 9 December 1906 and received her doctorate from Yale University in 1934. This was followed by a long career crowned with prizes. Grace Hopper received a total of over 90 awards, including more than 40 honorary doctorates. She received the Man of the Year Award from the Data Processing Management Association in 1969 and was one of the first women to receive the National Medal of Technology. Grace Hopper was the first woman ever to be named a Distinguished Fellow by the British Computer Society, and in 2016 President Barack Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The academic path of a pioneer
After graduating and during her time in the Navy, Hopper worked at Harvard University, where she performed mathematical calculations using the Mark I computer, completed in 1944. This was the world's first fully electronic computer. She also led the construction of the follow-on model, Mark II. Her career included numerous high-ranking positions, including researcher at Harvard University's computer lab. She was part of the US Navy Reserve until 1966, when she retired - for one year. In 1967, the US Navy returned her to active duty at the age of 61, where she served for another 19 years.

Grace Hopper
Lieutenant (j.g.) Grace Hopper und US Navy Specialist I, Third Class, Durward White bei der Betrachtung des Mark I Sequenzmechanismus, 1944. Grace Murray Hopper Papers, Archivzentrum, National Museum of American History, AC0324-0000036. © Smithsonian Institution
The achievements of Grace Hopper

Hopper was instrumental in the advancement of mechanisation and the development of the modern concept of coding. She shaped projects such as the Mark I, Mark II and UNIVAC. One of her most impressive achievements was the development of the first compiler (A-0) in 1952 and the resulting ability to convert intelligible language into computer language. With the programming language FLOW-MATIC and its compiler (1957), she also did decisive preliminary work for the development of the programming language COBOL.

Grace Hopper and Debugging
While Hopper was working on the Mark II, a computer relay failed in 1947. A technician from Hopper's team found a moth that had entered the machine. After the insect was removed, Hopper pasted the moth in her logbook, supplemented by the phrase: "First actual case of bug being found." Since then, she is often credited with inventing the term "debugging". However, the term "bug" as used for errors was not new at all. It had already been used by engineers in the previous century. Nevertheless, Hopper's words were formative for the use of the term in computer science.

Women in IT - Forgotten Pioneers?

The Eniac, successor to the Mark I, was also programmed by six women, among others. In photos, Kathleen McNulty, Frances Bilas, Elizabeth Jean Jennings, Frances Elizabeth Snyder, Ruth Lichterman and Marilyn Wescoff are shown next to the big machine. Nevertheless, in February 1946, only the men involved in the project were acknowledged at the official launch of the Eniac. It was only after Kathy Kleiman, a doctoral student at Harvard University, did more research years later that the story was revisited. Successfully, as it turned out. Fifty years later, in June 1997, the Eniac women programmers were honoured at a ceremony in Silicon Valley. All six women were inducted into the WITI Hall of Fame.

Final thoughts

In today's world, programming is increasingly seen as a man's job. Yet it was mainly women who made decisive progress in the field of information technology in the beginning. Software programming needs to be made more accessible to women again, not least by telling their stories.

Further information

The Smithsonian's Computer History Project interviewed Grace Hopper in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1972, Hopper donated papers and various items related to her work with computers to the museum. More information on this and Hopper herself can be found here. The logbook with the "bug" in it can be viewed online here.


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