Grace Murray Hopper was born Grace Brewster Murray in New York City. She was the oldest in a family of three children. She was curious as a child, a lifelong trait; at the age of seven she decided to determine how an alarm clock worked, and dismantled seven alarm clocks before her mother realized what she was doing (she was then limited to one clock). For her preparatory school education, she attended the Hartridge School in Plainfield, New Jersey. Rejected for early admission to Vassar College at age 16 (her test scores in Latin were too low), she was admitted the following year.
Young Grace’s diligence and hard work paid off when in 1928 at the age of 22 she was graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College. She then attended Yale University, where she received an MA degree in Mathematics and Physics in 1930 and a Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1934. Hopper began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931 where her first year’s salary was $800. She stayed there until she joined the United States Naval Reserve in December 1943.
Upon graduation, she was commissioned a LTJG and ordered to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University. There she became the first programmer on the Navy’s Mark I computer, the mechanical miracle of its day. Hopper’s love of gadgets caused her to immediately fall for the biggest gadget she’d ever seen, the fifty-one foot long, 8 foot high, 8 foot wide, glass-encased mound of bulky relays, switches and vacuum tubes called the Mark I. This miracle of modern science could store 72 words and perform three additions every second.
Grace’s love affair with the Mark I ended in a few short years when the UNIVAC I, operating a thousand times faster, won her affections.
In 1946, Grace Murray Hopper was released from active duty and joined the Harvard Faculty at the Computation Laboratory where her work continued on the Mark II and Mark III computers for the Navy. In 1949 she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia-later called Sperry Rand-where she designed the first commercial large-scale electronic computer called the UNIVAC I.
Grace Murray Hopper changed the lives of everyone in the computer industry by developing the Bomarc system, later called COBOL (common-business-oriented language). COBOL made it possible for computers to respond to words rather than numbers. Hopper often jokingly explained, “It really came about because I couldn’t balance my checkbook.”
Murray Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve with the rank of Commander at the end of 1966. She was recalled to active duty in August of 1967 for what was supposed to be a six-month assignment at the request of Norman Ream, then Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy for Automatic Data Processing. After the six months were up, her orders were changed to say her services would be needed indefinitely. She was promoted to Captain in 1973 by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., Chief of Naval Operations. In 1977, she was appointed special advisor to Commander, Naval Data Automation Command (NAVDAC), where she stayed until she retired.
In 1983, a bill was introduced by Rep. Philip Crane (D-Ill.) who said, “It is time the Navy recognized the outstanding contributions made by this officer (Admiral Grace Hopper) recalled from retirement over a decade and a half ago and promote her to the rank of Commodore.” Rep. Crane became interested in Grace Murray Hopper after seeing her March 1983 60 Minutes interview. He’d never met Hopper, but after speaking with several people, was convinced she was due the added status of being a flag officer. The bill was approved by the House, and at the age of 76, she was promoted to Commodore by special Presidential appointment. Her rank was elevated to rear admiral in November 1985, making her one of few women admirals in the history of the United States Navy.
On 27 September 1985, the Navy Regional Data Automation Center (now the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station), San Diego, broke ground on a 135,577 square foot data processing facility, The Grace Murray Hopper Service Center. The building contains a data processing center as well as training facilities, teleconferencing capabilities, telecommunications and expanded customer service areas. A small room-sized museum contains numerous artifacts, awards and citations that Hopper received during her lengthy career. The guest visitor’s book contains the names of some prominent people paying homage to the computer pioneer. There is also a Grace Murray Hopper Center for Computer Learning at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where she spent her childhood summers.
She retired (involuntarily) from the Navy on August 14, 1986. At a celebration held in Boston on the USS Constitution to celebrate her retirement, Hopper was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat decoration awarded by the Department of Defense. At the time of her retirement, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the United States Navy (79 years, eight months and five days), and aboard the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy (188 years, nine months and 23 days). (Admirals William D. Leahy, Chester W. Nimitz, Hyman G. Rickover and Charles Stewart were the only other officers in the Navy’s history to serve on active duty at a higher age. Leahy and Nimitz served on active duty for life due to their promotions to the rank of fleet admiral.)
Three hundred of her friends and admirers and thirty family members were there to watch as the end came to her 43-year Naval career. As then Secretary of the Navy John Lehman said in his speech, “I’m reminded of that famous story by P.T. Barnum. About the turn of the century, his principle attraction, the human cannonball, came to P.T. Barnum and said, Mr. Barnum, I just can’t take it any longer. Two performances a day and four on weekends are just too much. I’m quitting.’ Barnum said, You can’t possibly quit. Where will I find someone else of your caliber?’ They realized Hopper was irreplaceable.”
In her retirement speech, instead of dwelling on the past, she talked about moving toward the future, stressing the importance of leadership. “Our young people are the future. We must provide for them. We must give them the positive leadership they’re looking for…You manage things; you lead people.” It was at her retirement in 1986 that she was presented the highest award given by the Department of Defense – the Defense Distinguished Service Medal – one of innumerable awards she received from both the Navy and industry.
Other awards include the Navy Meritorious Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the National Medal of Technology, awarded last September by President George Bush. She also received the first computer sciences “man of the year” award from the Data Processing Management Association (DPMA) in 1969. Other achievements include retiring from the Navy as a Rear Admiral and the oldest serving officer at that time, and being the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Yale University. For a CAPT Grace Hopper, Head of the Navy Programming Section of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OP-911F), at work in her office in August 1976. She was the first Naval Reserve woman to be called back to active duty.
Retirement didn’t slow Admiral Grace Hopper down. Shortly thereafter, she became a Senior Consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation where she was active until about 18 months before her death. She functioned in much the same capacity she did when she was in the Navy, traveling on lecture tours around the country, speaking at engineering forums, colleges, universities and computer seminars passing on the message that managers shouldn’t be afraid of change. In her opinion, “the most damaging phrase in the language is We’ve always done it this way.'”
Grace said in many of her speeches, “I always promise during my talks that if anyone in the audience says during the next 12 months, ‘But we’ve always done it that way,’ I will immediately materialize beside him and haunt him for the next 24 hours and see if I could get him to take a second look.” Embracing the unconventional, the clock in her office ran counterclockwise.
Grace’s favorite age group to address was young people between the ages of 17 and 20. She believed they know more, they question more and they learn more than people in what she called the “in-between years”, ages 40 to 45. She always placed very high importance on America’s youth. Hopper often said, “working with the youth is the most important job I’ve done. It’s also the most rewarding.” This seems perfectly natural since she spent all her adult life teaching others.
Grace Murray Hopper was a big hit at the Navy Micro Conference. She loved to tell the story of how the conference started because it supported her famous saying, “It’s always easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
Here’s the story:
A sailor in the Pacific fleet built a computer aboard ship. A picture of the computer appeared in Navy Times where a rear admiral saw it. He wrote the sailor a letter of encouragement. The sailor decided to answer the rear admiral directly, telling him exactly what was wrong with computers in the Pacific fleet and what could be done using microcomputers. (The computer mentality at that time was geared around mainframes.)
As events evolved, the sailor was transferred to the Navy Regional Data Automation Center (NARDAC) in Norfolk, Virginia (now called Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station LAN) where his technical expertise could be fully utilized. He was part of the team that birthed the first microcomputer conference in 1982. A five point plan was developed that centered around the microcomputer contracts. It provided other needed services for users, including the ability to communicate via a conference.
What started off as a small seminar for 400 people the first year has grown into a full-blown conference, averaging over a thousand attendees every year. It wasn’t until the third year that the conference became completely legal.
Grace Hopper was a keynote speaker for the conference in its earlier years, drawing a standing-room-only crowd. Although she had a standard keynote speech, stressing the same message over and over, people were fascinated by her. Her lectures challenged management to keep pace. The Navy Micro Conference still goes on today, alternating between the east and west coasts, still stressing Hopper’s unique message to the world: Be innovative, open minded and give people the freedom to try new things.
Hopper enchanted her audiences with tales of the computer evolution and her uncanny ability to predict the trends of the future. Many of her predictions came true right before her eyes as industry built more powerful, more compact machines and developed the operating systems and software that matched her visions. Some of her more innovative ideas include using computers to track the lifecycle of crop eating locusts, building a weather computer, managing water reserves so that everyone would have a fair share and tracking the waves at the bottom of the ocean. She also thought every ship should have a computer that the crew could play with and learn to use.
Admiral Hopper was observed at the Navy Micro ’87. She passed by with her entourage, smoking a filter-less Lucky Strike cigarette as she often did. People could be heard whispering, “There she is,” as she passed by. The initial impression of her was that of a friendly, grandmotherly-type woman who looked almost frail. Those words don’t exactly describe the public side of Grace Hopper. She was described by one reporter as a “feisty old salt who gave off an aura of power.” This held true in her dealings with top brass, subordinates and interviewers – always interested in getting to the bottom line.
Eighty-five-year-old Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper who dedicated her life to the Navy passed away on 1 January 1992. As a pioneer Computer Programmer and co-inventor of COBOL, she was known as the Grand Lady of Software, Amazing Grace and Grandma COBOL. She’ll be remembered for her now famous sayings, one of which is “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
Her insight into the future will stay with us even though she’s gone. Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, Section 59, lot 973.