Grace Hopper was the inventor of the computer language COBOL; she designed the compiler, a remarkable innovation which made modern computing possible. The compiler evolved into COBOL, one of the first computer languages, and led to the distinction between hardware and software. Along the way, Grace single-handedly invented the idea of open source software too.
A compiler sequences code to programme computers. My favourite behavioural economist Tim Harford highlighted this invention as one of the 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. Click here to listen to the podcast.
Kurt Beyer’s book, Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age is available at all good bookshops and online at that well known virtual store.
Harford introduces Grace Hooper as very much like the heroines of the film Hidden Figures, which is about the female African-American mathematicians at NASA, who were critical in putting a man on the Moon, but not recognised for their input with their work being credited to white, male scientists.
Practice makes perfect
The story of Grace has a parallel in Matthew Syed’s story told in his book Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice.
Matthew had a brother, three years older and their home had a double garage which housed a table tennis table. That meant they got lots of practice at table tennis – remember Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice required to achieve mastery?
Matthew grew up in Reading and his secondary school employed the UK’s national table tennis coach. When a leading Chinese table tennis player defected to the UK guess where he went to live, Reading, of course.
From an early age Matthew had the opportunity to practice and the best coaching. He went on to become the UK’s No 1 table tennis player and to represent GB at the Olympics. Yes, you need the talent and the passion but sometimes it helps to be in the right place at the right time!
So, back to Grace Hopper. She was born in New York in 1906; a curious child who, at the age of seven, decided to find out how an alarm clock worked, and dismantled seven before her mother realised what she was doing and limited her to one clock.
Unusually for the time Grace’s father believed that his daughter should have as good an education as his son received. Grace’s grandfather was a rear-admiral in the Navy, and she wanted to join but couldn’t as the Navy didn’t take female recruits. A talented mathematician and eventually became an associate professor of mathematics at Vassar.
Seize the moment
Then came World War II and Pearl Harbour, when the US entered the war. The men went to war and that presented a real opportunity for women like Grace. The Navy needed mathematicians to calculate speed, distance and trajectories for missiles, these are not complex calculations, but time-consuming for a human armed only with pen and paper.
In 1943 the Navy accepted Grace. She trained at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College in Massachusetts, and graduated first in her class in 1944. At around the same time the Harvard Mark 1 computer was invented and the Navy wanted to exploit the new technology so Grace got to work on the Mark I project. She was instrumental in the development “programming sequences”.
The first computers needed individual programming as they were all set up differently. The men who programmed them liked to be the only ones who could communicate with the computers. Grace called them ’the high priests’; she developed sequences of code that allowed programming not only to be efficient but also accessible to all.
Grace thought that anyone should be able to programme and, now, anyone can.
Learning as we go
Grace Hopper was unknown to me until I read Beyer’s book as part of my holiday reading programme. I learned a lot about the development of computers and also why we de-bug computers – the Harvard Mark 1 fell over once because a moth got into it!
Wonderful things holidays; they say travel broadens the mind and that certainly happened in this instance.
So what does this story tells us apart from the fact that some people don’t get the recognition they deserve?
I think it has a lot to do with creating the right conditions to allow talent to emerge and flourish. Also I think we should recognise the power of education – remember Grace’s father and his encouragement.
In essence, though the lesson is, make the most of your opportunities. In fact Grace herself said just that: “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”.
Sadly, there is still a lot of discussion about how to get more women into science and technology and I do wonder whether without WWII the US Navy would have accepted Grace.