Meet the Woman Who Opened Computer Programming to Millions

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To recognize women’s achievements in STEM, one cannot appropriately honor those who paved the way without honoring Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.

Hopper graduated from Yale University in 1934 with her Ph.D. in mathematics and mathematical physics, making her one of the first women to receive a doctorate degree in mathematics. Prior to that, she graduated from Vassar College in 1928 with degrees in mathematics and physics and from Yale in 1930 with a master’s degree in mathematics. 

After earning her Ph. D., Hopper acted as an associate professor at Vassar up until the start of the United States’ involvement in World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The war prompted her to take a leave of absence and join the U.S. Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve) in December 1943. Assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University, she worked on the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, which is also known as the Mark I, as an early computer programmer. A Yale memoriam to Hopper’s life recalls that she was “responsible for programming the Mark I and punching machine instructions onto tape” and “also wrote the 561-page user manual for the Mark I.” Upon the end of the war, Hopper would go on to work in the U.S. Navy as a reserve officer and take part in efforts on the Mark II and Mark III computers.

Her most notable work took place in 1952, when she and her programming team developed the first computer language “compiler.” The compiler took the gobbledegook code created by a computer and broke it down into a more readable binary code that would allow for programmers to write for multiple computers as opposed to one singular machine. Her team also created the first programming language to use commands that were English-adjacent.

“What I was after in beginning English language [programming] was to bring another whole group of people able to use the computer easily. … I kept calling for more user-friendly languages. Most of the stuff we get from academicians, computer science people, is in no way adapted to people,” explained Hopper in a 1980 interview.

As one of the co-creators of the first compiler for computer languages, Hopper had been the recipient of myriad honors. In 1972, she received Yale’s Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal, which “recognizes distinguished achievements in scholarship, teaching, academic administration, and public service.” A Republican Congressman from Illinois introduced a bill in 1983 that had her promoted to the rank of commodore. She became the first female recipient of the National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest technology award, in 1991, and was the oldest serving officer in the U.S. Armed Forces when she retired at 79 as a rear admiral.  

Hopper died in 1992 and had been working as a senior consultant in public relations at the Digital Equipment Corporation until just a year before. In the wake of her death, her legacy was honored with even more awards. In 1996, the U.S. had a guided missile destroyer named after her — the U.S.S. Hopper — and in 2016, she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her many contributions to the field of computing.

"If Wright is flight, and Edison is light, then Hopper is code," then-president Barack Obama said of Hopper’s legacy while awarding the honor. He continued: "While the women who pioneered software were often overlooked, the most prestigious award for young computer scientists now bear her name [a reference to the annual Grace Murray Hopper Award for Outstanding Young Computer Professionals].”

The Bottom Line 

Hopper’s achievements cannot be overstated enough, as she paved the way for women in STEM today. On recognizing her contributions, Obama said it best: "From cellphones to [U.S.] Cyber Command, we can thank Grace Hopper for opening programming to millions more people, helping to usher in the information age and profoundly shaping our digital world." 

Tags: Groundbreaking Women, Women's History, Women's History Month, KNOWHERNAME

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Written By

Rose Low

Rose Low is a writer based in New York, with a background in social media strategy and reporting. She has a Masters from NYU and a love for romantic comedies. See Full Bio

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