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Admiral Hopper was, among other things, the first woman to achieve a flag rank in the United States Navy, oldest officer in the Navy when she retired, and the inventor of the programming language compiler (and the assembler before it). She was a pioneer in the field of computer science, and without her, we would not have the software we do today.

A compiler is a program which translates software from the language it's programmed in, an abstract and more easily understood language than raw machine code, into the raw machine code that computers understand. Or, more accurately, into assembly language, which is a mnemonic representation of that machine code. Assemblers then translate the mnemonic language into machine code.

At the time Hopper came up with the concept, working at Remington Rand in the 1950s, programming was done in raw machine code. Then-Lieutenant Commander Hopper wondered if it might be possible to program in a more natural langauge, and worked on writing software which would translate mnemonic representations for machine code into the raw bit patterns that the computer would execute: the first assembler. This led to her creating the first compiler for a programming language that she created: A-0. It was by our standards a very low-level language, not very abstract by comparison to today's programming languages, but the important thing was that she'd realized her idea: the machine could be programmed using a language other than its raw machine code.

This breakthrough led to her work on other, more advanced programing languages, and paved the way for the invention of the first higher-level languages, FORTRAN, LISP, and COBOL. Hopper went on to work on the standardization of COBOL in the 1960s and 70s, working for the Navy Programming Languages group. In the process, she was promoted to Commander, and then Captain.

Her other major contribution to the field of computer science and information technology, was promoting the idea of standards for testing computer equipment and software, which led to the creation of the National Bureau of Standards, today known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Hopper was promoted to Commodore by a special Presidential appointment in 1983, in honor of her achievements. This rank no longer exists: it was converted to "Rear Admiral, Lower Half" in 1985, making Hopper the first woman to achieve an admiralty rank. When she retired in 1986, she was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, highest non-combat award in the US armed forces, in a ceremony aboard the USS Constitution. She was the oldest officer in the Navy (79), aboard the oldest ship in the Navy (commissioned under George Washington).

Hopper is honored by the Association for Computing Machines with their annual "Grace Murray Hopper Award for Outstanding Young Computer Professionals", which was first given in 1971 to Donald Knuth. She also has an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer named after her, the USS Hopper, and was the first woman to be made a distinguished fellow of the British Computer Society in 1973.

Aside from pioneering new ideas, one of the things she was best known for was education. She was known for telling fascinating stories about the early days of computing, including popularizing the term "bug" to relate to a software or hardware defect: Hopper and her associates found a moth stuck in a relay of the Mark II computer at Harvard, which she taped into the log book with the wry note "First actual case of a bug being found."

She would also, at lectures, pass out lengths of wire just under a foot long, which she called "nanoseconds", the length being the distance light would travel in one nanosecond. This was a useful visual aid for people wondering why satellite communication took so long. She would contrast these small lengths with a 1000 foot coil of wire, which represented a microsecond.

I've always found Admiral Hopper a fascinating person, both for her amazing accomplishments, and for the fact that she achieved these things beginning in an era when few women were able to achieve professional distinction due to prejudice, much less serve in the US military. She paved the way for many women to follow her, and had a large part in creating the digital world we now live in.


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July 2014

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