In an interview with Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper in the 80s, David Letterman asks her how she knew so much about computers at the time. Her response?
“I didn’t. It was the first one.”
The audience explodes with laughter. Hopper’s honesty and quick wit shine at that moment.
For a woman who didn’t know much about computers when she first entered the Navy Reserve, Hopper made tremendous advances in the world of computer programming.
She left her position as a professor at Vassar College and entered the Navy at 37-years-old. She was one of many women who joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), a program created in 1942 calling for women to join military personnel during World War II.
While in the Navy she worked on the first programmable computer in the United States, Mark I, at Harvard.
After WWII, Hopper became the oldest serving officer in the United States Navy. She is credited with creating Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL), a programming language still used today. But according to the producers of the Hopper documentary “Born with Curiosity,” the witty Rear Admiral wrote a program called FLOW-MATIC, which became the foundation for the team who wrote COBOL.
Using FLOW-MATIC, Admiral Hopper and her staff were able to make the UNIVAC I and II “understand” twenty statements in English. When she recommended that an entire programming language be developed using English words, however, she “was told very quickly that [she] couldn’t do this because computers didn’t understand English.” It was three years before her idea was finally accepted; she published her first compiler paper in 1952.
Admiral Hopper actively participated in the first meetings to formulate specifications for a common business language. She was one of the two technical advisers to the resulting CODASYL Executive Committee, and several of her staff were members of the CODASYL Short Range Committee to define the basic COBOL language design. The design was greatly influenced by FLOW-MATIC. As one member of the Short Range Committee stated, “[FLOW-MATIC] was the only business-oriented programming language in use at the time COBOL development started… Without FLOW-MATIC we probably never would have had a COBOL.” The first COBOL specifications appeared in 1959.
Rear Admiral Hopper died in 1992 at 85-years-old.
Today she is remembered as the “Queen of Code,” a name some speculate Hopper would have hated. Actress Gillian Jacobs, best known for her role as Britta Perry on the NBC sitcom “Community,” directed a short documentary about Hopper by the same name.
“Grace Hopper was able to succeed in a number of male dominated institutions–the Navy, the computing industry–and yet she never considered herself a feminist,” Jacobs said in a recent NPR interview. “There’s a celebration named after her, she’s got a destroyer named after her but she herself had disdain for that.”