Issue #2 - Grace Hopper

Welcome to the 2nd issue of Heroes of Computer Science!

I hope you enjoyed the first edition of this newsletter, long enough to learn something and short enough to read in a minute. That’s how I want to keep these, together with a nice Further reading section if you want to dig deeper.

Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper is revered for her cutting-edge contributions to computer programming, software development, and design and implementation of programming languages.


Hopper had a long and influential career, both in the U.S. Navy and the computer industry.

She worked on the teams that developed several early computers (Mark I, Mark II and UNIVAC I), at a time where programming was more about doing math, writing equations and symbols, and most experts saw computers only capable of arithmetic.

Hopper believed it would be much easier for people to process data by writing programs in English, a novel idea at the time. In 1952 she finished building the first compiler, the A-0 System, coining the term “compiler” as well (although now seen more as loader or linker than the modern notion of a compiler).

This opened up the doors for the first compiler-based programming languages, including MATH-MATIC, FLOW-MATIC and COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language), these three designed with Grace Hopper’s input. COBOL was one of the first high-level programming languages and it’s still in use today.

Alongside her career in the computer industry, Hopper was also an accomplished navy officer. She served for more than 40 years and in 1966, age restrictions forced her to retire. She later called it “the saddest day of my life.” However, she would see herself being recalled to active service again, retire a second time, then recalled once more in 1972. She retired for a third and last time in 1986, as the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy (79 years old).

Above all, Hopper was a life-long communicator and teacher; outside of academia, she organised a multitude of conferences and workshops to promote the understanding of computers and programming. Upon accepting the National Medal of Technology (one of the dozens of honors she received overall), she said:

“If you ask me what accomplishment I’m most proud of, the answer would be all the young people I’ve trained over the years; that’s more important than writing the first compiler.”

🐛 On a last note, you might have heard the story of Grace Hopper and the first computer bug. In 1945, while working on the Mark II, Hopper and her team encountered a problem. They opened up the machine and traced the error to a moth trapped in a relay (that they kept in their log book). Although the term “bug” had been used by engineers since the 19th century to represent a mechanical malfunction, her team was the first to refer to a computer problem as a “bug” and the case was held as an episode of literal "debugging."

Further reading

With such a long career, Grace Hopper stands as one of the most accomplished computer scientists and here are just a few books about her and her legacy. You can also check some of her team’s notes (with the moth they found) and, inspired by her legacy, the Grace Hopper Celebration event that brings the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront.

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