Grace Hopper is revered in technology for a number of reasons. Hopper defied the expectations placed on women of her time again and again, succeeding in two male-dominated institutions: the Navy and the computing industry.
Born in 1906, Hopper studied mathematics and physics at Vassar, graduating in 1928. She went on to Yale, eventually earning her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934. She was one of the first women to earn such a degree. In December 1943, she felt compelled to join the U.S. Naval Reserve where, given her mathematical background, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project. While there she learned to program a Mark I computer.
Continuing to work in computing after the war, Hopper moved into private industry in 1949, where eventually she oversaw programming for the UNIVAC computer. In 1952, she led the team that created the first computer language compiler, which led to the popular COBOL language.
Though she retired from the Naval Reserve in 1966, she was called to duty again and again, finally retiring at the age of 79 as a rear admiral and the oldest serving officer in the service. But she wasn’t done with the computing industry. She remained working for several more years, and was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991, becoming the first female individual recipient of the honor.
Hopper passed away in 1992, at the age of 85. Her legacy lives on and continues to inspire young women to learn programming. Created in her honor, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference is a technical conference that empowers women to become a part of the computing industry.
Another part of Hopper’s legacy? She is often given credit for the term ‘computer bug.’ While she was a research fellow at Harvard working on the Mark II computer, she found a moth in one of the relays that had apparently shorted out the Mark II. That story is now often associated with the origin of ‘debugging.'