Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was a pathbreaking leader in computing and programming development from the 1940s to 1980s. She was also a visionary, predicting that computers would one day be small enough to fit on a desk and would be used by everyday people without programming expertise when that future was still decades away.
Hopper is most celebrated for making coding languages more practical and accessible, earning her the moniker “Queen of Code.” She is a recipient of many awards and honors, including the National Medal of Technology and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The USS Hopper, a guided-missile destroyer commissioned in 1997, bears her name, as does one of Yale’s fourteen residential colleges.
Hopper’s brilliance was undeniable. Hopper obtained an MA and PhD in mathematics from Yale in the early 1930s before becoming a mathematics professor at Vassar College, her alma mater. In 1943, Hopper joined the U.S. Naval Reserve, serving in the new all-female Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) division. Assigned to join the programming staff for the new Harvard Mark I computer, Hopper was the third programmer to work on the machine. Hopper continued to serve in the Naval Reserve until 1967, when she was recalled to active duty. Upon retirement from the Navy in 1986, Hopper held the distinction of being, at age 79, the oldest serving officer in the U.S. military. She was also the first woman to obtain the rank of Rear Admiral.
Building a Trusted Future
After the war, Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchley Computer Corporation, where she worked on building the UNIVAC I, the first commercial electronic computer.
In the late 1940s, Hopper encountered pushback when she advocated for developing a programming language that would use entirely English words. Despite skepticism, she pushed ahead in spite of those who said it could not be done, creating the first operational compiler in 1952. The compiler, used to translate source code drafted in more human-like language into machine code (0s and 1s), was a precursor to the development of common business-oriented language (COBOL), which is still widely used today.
Hopper’s legacy extends throughout other aspects of computing as well. She was a key figure in the development of implementation of standards for testing computer systems. Once adopted by the Navy, the standards encouraged convergence among the programming language dialects. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) later assumed responsibility for the administering and revising the standards.
“The most important piece of advice that I can give to all of you: if you've got a good idea, and it's a contribution, I want you to go ahead and DO IT. It is much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”