Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age

Ursula Martin discovers much about an IT pioneer's work, but too little about her personality

February 25, 2010

Grace Murray Hopper (1906-92) was a computer pioneer who as an academic, a naval officer working with Howard Aiken on one of the first programmable computers, and later at Remington Rand, had an extraordinary and pioneering career. She was at the heart of the creation of computer programming and the computer industry, and is credited with the development of the compiler and the widely used Cobol language. Here, Kurt Beyer tells her story within the broader development of computer programming.

Modern computing grew from developments in analogue computing, telephony and mechanical calculation throughout the first half of the 20th century, culminating in rapid developments in the US, the UK and Germany during and after the Second World War. The first computers were built for a fixed task, such as cracking codes. While Charles Babbage and Alan Turing had set out the principles of a computer that could be programmed to do anything, the first such computers were programmed by pioneers like Hopper through lengthy low-level instructions.

Programming in such detail was tricky, time-consuming and error prone: Hopper is credited with popularising the term "bug" after a dead moth was found in a stalled computer, and, more significantly, with how to organise programming teams.

By the mid-1960s, most programs were written in more accessible languages, which were translated by a program called a compiler into detailed instructions for the computer. This approach allowed programs to be developed more quickly and cheaply, and to run on a number of different machines. Hopper wrote the first compiler, and was an advocate of making access to computing simpler, especially to aid business applications. In 1960, she masterminded a consortium approach to a programming language that would become Cobol, which by the year 2000 comprised 80 per cent of all programs.

Beyer is good on context and the forces and cultures shaping innovation: the military discipline of Aiken's lab; the open culture of early start-ups; the financial strains on young companies; the differing business models of Remington Rand and IBM; the importance of government procurement in providing financing; and the role of articulate advocacy and clear non-technical dissemination. It is tempting in the history of technology to look for firsts, and Beyer occasionally succumbs.

But the top priority for these pioneers was building reliable working computers, and getting people to use them, rather than redefining their h-indices. Ideas came from all over, from each other, and from more traditional areas of engineering, and were disseminated through the computers themselves and their user manuals, rather than carefully crafted journal articles. So working out provenance can be quite hard. In particular, the origins of the sub-routine and the flowchart are probably more complex than he suggests.

However, this is not a conventional biography. It takes Hopper all of a page to get born, educated, and acquire a PhD in mathematics (the first awarded to a woman at Yale University), a husband, and a job teaching at Vassar College. There is no room for what shaped her, or her childhood fondness for taking alarm clocks apart. Three more pages take us to 1944, and with America at war, the 37-year-old Hopper gets divorced, leaves her job as a maths professor to join the US Navy and is assigned to Aiken's project.

In particular, she surely deserves better than a terse summary of her alcoholism and depression, comprising extracts from an open letter from a friend about the "immaturity" and "stubbornness" that he says prevent her recovery, and the implication that within a few months she was well. Missing too is a deeper analysis of the position of Hopper and other women in a largely male environment: we learn how the military framework of Aiken's lab legitimised the women within it, and that some later found a misogynist atmosphere at Remington Rand, but we are left to guess at how Hopper overcame this to flourish there for 15 years.

Beyer is strong, however, on Hopper's broader contribution. He stresses her role in establishing the activity of computer programming and educating new generations of programmers, her understanding of the importance of advocacy as well as technical achievement in effective innovation, her political acumen in difficult work environments, her success in leadership and consensus-building that led to the development and continuing success of Cobol, and her tireless work into old age to encourage the young and to promote a vision of computing.

Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age

By Kurt W. Beyer

MIT Press, 408pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780262013109

Published 25 September 2009

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