By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
The typical career arc of a naval officer may run from 25-30 years. Most, however, don’t start at age 35. Yet when it comes to Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, well, the word “typical” just doesn’t apply.
Feisty. Eccentric. Maverick. Brilliant. Precise. Grace Hopper embodied all of those descriptions and more, but perhaps what defined her as much as anything else was the pride she had in wearing the Navy uniform for 43 years. Ironically, Rear Adm. Grace Hopper — “Amazing Grace” as she was known — had to fight to get into the Navy.
Grace Brewster Murray was born into a well-off family in New York on Dec. 9, 1906. She could have followed what many of her peers did during those times: attending college for a year or two, getting married then devoting their lives to their families and volunteer work.
Instead, Grace’s path would be less traveled. Encouraged to explore her innate curiosity on how things worked, a 7-year-old Grace dismantled all of the family’s alarm clocks trying to put them back together again. Rather than banishment from the practice, she was allowed one to practice on.
A favorite story oft-told by the adult Hopper was published in the book Grace Hopper, Admiral of the Cyber Sea by Kathleen Broome Williams, Ph.D. The tale has young Grace in a sail canoe on Lake Wentworth at her family’s summer home. A gust of wind capsized the canoe, dunking her into the lake. Her mother, watching from the porch, picked up a megaphone at her side and called to her daughter: “Remember your great-grandfather, the admiral.” With this stout admonition not to give up the ship, Grace hung onto the canoe and kicked it to shore.
When she arrived at Vassar for her undergraduate education, Hopper chose both mathematics and physics as her majors. As an undergraduate, Hopper often tutored other students, helping them understand how abstract concepts worked in the real world. For a left-handed classmate, Hopper reversed T-squares and triangles allowing him to complete his assigned work. Years later, while trying to help flag officers understand the speed of light, she carried pieces of wire cut to 11.80 inches to show the distance of a nanosecond, compared to a coil nearly 1,000 feet long as a microsecond. Eventually packets of pepper would turn into an aid for picoseconds.
Hopper began her post-graduate work at Yale University, earning both her master’s and doctorate degrees in mathematics by 1934. She then returned to Vassar to teach math. For her calculus classes, she substituted rockets for the ballistics problems, unaware her future would have her computing such calculations for a real war, according to Williams.
When Congress authorized the Navy Women’s Reserve and its accompanying WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) program in June 1942, Hopper was intrigued. That great-grandfather, the admiral, had fought at Mobile Bay and Vicksburg in the Union Navy. So she chose to join the WAVES. But she had three strikes against her: At age 35, she was considered too old for enlistment, at 105 pounds she was 16 pounds underweight for her 5-foot, 6-inch frame, and as a mathematics instructor, her profession was not considered crucial to the war effort.
Hopper argued being in the WAVES would allow her to more directly help the war effort than in a classroom and she was naturally lean. After more than a year, she finally persuaded Vassar to give her a leave of absence and then got the Navy to give her waivers for her age and weight.
“She loved being in the WAVES and her midshipmen’s training at Smith College,” Williams said Sunday evening from her Oakland, Calif., home. “She loved the discipline, although she wasn’t keen on the black (cotton) stockings. It just suited her to perfection. She had a precise mind, even though she could be eccentric.”
When she joined the WAVES in December 1943, Lt. j.g. Grace Hopper was 37 years old. Williams noted that after graduating at the top of her class of 800 officer candidates in June 1944, Hopper paid homage to Alexander Wilson Russell, her great-grandfather, the admiral who apparently took a “dim view of women and cats” in the Navy and laid flowers on his grave to “comfort and reassure him.”
Hopper was sent to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University under the guidance of Howard Aiken. The Harvard physics and applied mathematics professor helped create the first Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC), better known as Mark I. He ran a lab where design, testing, modification and analysis of weapons were calculated. Most were specially trained women called computers. “So the first ‘computers’ were women who did the calculating on desk calculators,” Williams said. And the time it took for the computers to calculate was called “girl hours.”
What happened next put Hopper on a new path that would define the rest of her life, according to a passage in the book Improbable Warriors: Women Scientists in the U.S. Navy during World War II also by Williams.
On July 2, 1944, Hopper reported to duty and met Aiken.
“That’s a computing engine,” Aiken snapped at Hopper, pointing to the Mark I. “I would be delighted to have the coefficients for the interpolation of the arc tangent by next Thursday.”
Hopper was a mathematician, but what she wasn’t was a computer programmer. Aiken gave her a codebook, and as Hopper put it, a week to learn “how to program the beast and get a program running.”
Hopper overcame her lack of programming skills the same way she always tackled other obstacles; by being persistent and stopping at nothing to solve problems. She eventually would become well-versed in how the machine operated, all 750,000 parts, 530 miles of wire and 3 million wire connections crammed in a machine that was 8-feet tall and 50-feet wide.
During one of her shifts, she traced a glitch back to a moth that was caught in a relay wire. After “debugging” the relay (and taping the moth to the report), the system worked. And from then on, a problem with a program would be referred to as a bug.
When mathematicians claim they are lazy, as Hopper said she was, that’s code for “life is too short to keep doing the same thing over and over and over again.” So rather than tediously repeat programming codes, innovators like Hopper and Aiken created shortcuts. For Aiken, it was the Mark I, so he wouldn’t have to keep figuring out mathematical calculations for his doctoral dissertation.
For Hopper, it was turning a math-based coding language into the more user-friendly English-based FLOW-MATIC programming language, which was part of the foundation of Common Business Operating Language (COBOL), soon to become one of the universally-accepted coding languages of that time.
Another Grace Hopper legacy is her oft-quoted statement: “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”
“Grace had a stock of stories that related to a number of her phrases, all put on note cards — she never had a written speech,” Williams said. “She would tell her stories in different orders, and that was one of the expressions she would use a lot. I don’t know of the first instance where she credits that phrase or even if she knew herself.”
That phrase might have come to her during a time when Hopper worked in the basement of the Pentagon, where her office was decorated with a clock that ran counter-clockwise and, perhaps even more aptly, the Jolly Roger pirate flag.
Because Hopper’s team would run their programs at night when no one was using the computers, “she had her crew go out and liberate equipment they needed that they had no budget for and bring them into their offices,” Williams recalled.
Hopper’s career in the Navy was hardly a straight path. She was released from active duty in 1946, but she remained in the Naval Reserve and worked as a contractor on the Mark II and Mark III computers. In 1949, she then joined Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia (Sperry Rand) where she developed a faster computer called UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer).
Cmdr. Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve in 1966, but was recalled back to active duty months later in Aug. 1967 for a six-month assignment for the Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy for Automatic Data Processing. That six month assignment turned into 19 years. Along the way, she earned the rank of captain in 1973 and was appointed special advisor to Commander, Naval Data Automation Command.
In 1983, a bill was passed in Congress to promote Hopper to the rank of commodore, and in 1985, when that rank became rear admiral (lower half), Hopper was among a select few female flag officers.
In 1986, at age 79, Hopper retired “involuntarily,” Williams stressed, ending a 43-year career that put her among the longest-serving officers, behind Rear Adm. Charles Stewart’s 64 years (1798-1862), and Adm. Hyman G. Rickover’s 63-year active-duty service. Fleet Admirals William Leahy and Chester Nimitz remained on active-duty for life due to their 5-star fleet admiral rank.
It was fitting her retirement ceremony was held on the 188-year-old USS Constitution, the longest-serving commissioned ship in the United States Navy. Her speech reflected her interest in teaching young people.
“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.”
“Grace Hopper was way ahead of her time,” said historian Regina Akers, Ph.D., with the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington Navy Yard. “She excelled in a male-dominated profession and literally helped develop the Navy’s first computer at a time when women weren’t getting advanced degrees. She did these things during a critical time for the country and the Navy.”
Despite her success, Hopper never forgot her first avocation – teaching.
“She understood the importance of encouraging young people to consider the hard sciences; she was advocating STEM before there was STEM (the National Science Foundation’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program),” Akers said.
Williams added Hopper always “took great joy when young people were gathered around her during her speaking engagements. She mentored a lot of young people, and her reason for doing that was helping to get them interested in science and technology. She was really ahead of her time. She immediately took to the idea that computers would one day fit in a small box and not take up a whole room.”
Upon Hopper’s death Jan. 1, 1992 at age 85, a collection of papers from her voluminous stash went to the Smithsonian Institute. Williams said Hopper kept every record and paper she produced, including magnetic computer tapes, stacked floor to ceiling across three apartments in her apartment complex, as well as a collection of Hummel figurines, dolls and a childhood doll house with wallpapered walls and dormer windows.
In 1996, the destroyer USS Hopper (DDG 70) was named to honor her as a pioneer in the computer industry.
In Oct. 2016, the U.S. Naval Academy broke ground on a new cyber security studies center, also named for Hopper.
“Amazing Grace wasn’t ‘bigger than a minute,’” Akers said. “But she was a real giant in the field of computers.”
Editor’s note: Since publishing this blog, RDML Hopper continues to be remembered and honored. On November 22, 2016, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously by President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony Nov. 22. You can read the full story, including quotes from President Obama, here.