Friday, June 5, 2015

Grace Hopper

"Leadership is a two-way street, loyalty up and loyalty down. 
Respect for one's superiors; care for one's crew."

The U.S. Navy has a guided missile destroyer named for an admiral who never served as a line officer, never commanded a ship, and never, as far as I can find, put to sea.  She did, however, substantially transform the world in which we live.  That's why the destroyer's nickname is, like that of its namesake, "Amazing Grace".

The admiral is also responsible for the hardest foreign language I've ever known.  While it seems an archaic and virtually dead language now, and wasn't for human-to-human communication, it permitted machines to speak with us and vice versa.  It was called Fortran.  That language, and its related idiom of Cobal, was composed to operate computers and probably carries as much historical influence as English, French, and Mandarin.

One of the chief architects of those languages was Grace Hopper.  Born in New York City in 1906, Hopper showed an early interest in knowing how things work and, after dismantling a series of household mechanical clocks when she was seven, how things went back together.  Her formal education was impressive, especially as she was almost admitted to Vassar at the age of sixteen [poor Latin scores prevented her admission, but she matriculated the next year].  By 1934, Hopper was the possessor of a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Yale University and a sinecure as an associate professor at Vassar.

Then, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hopper and many other educated women sought to aid the country's war effort, so many that the Navy established an officers' training school for women at Smith College [Goodness, how things have changed.  Can we imagine such a thing today at a liberal arts college notoriously hostile towards the military?]  Hopper graduated at the top of her class and was assigned to the Navy's "Computation Project" at Harvard University to work on the famous, and remarkably advanced, Mark I computer.

Of course, it's less powerful than a modern smart phone, but in its day....

Her work on this and subsequent computer developments were such that, at war's end, she applied to remain in the Navy and continue her work.  While she was denied regular Navy service [because of the war, the fact that she was physically slight was ignored; after the war, that adjustment was no longer permitted], she remained in the Navy Reserves and continued to work as a consultant to the War [now Defense] Department.

Shortly after being turned down for regular duty, the Remington Rand [now Unisys] corporation hired Hopper to be their director of automatic programming since, with her achievements in computer languages, she had proven that computing machines could do much more than simply work out mathematical problems.  Along with a team of like-minded mathematicians and engineers, Hopper helped to develop the next radical leap forward in artificial intelligence: The UNIVAC.  The UNIVAC and its successive models would be used not only by military developers and academics, but would work out the results of the 1950 census and accurately predict the outcome of the 1952 presidential election.

Hopper and her fan club at work on a later version of the UNIVAC.  Compared to the Mark I, it's practically portable.

Hopper would also re-organize military computing by suggesting the replacement of a centralized system with a collection of smaller, distributed stations that could access a common mainframe.  Recognizing a good thing, however belatedly, the Navy realized the treasure that was Grace Hopper and kept her active during the remainder of her career.  While she was required to retire at the age of sixty, now with the rank of full commander, she was recalled to duty the next year and the next and the next, eventually retiring once again [for perhaps the fourth or fifth time] with the rank of captain.  She was finally required to absolutely, positively retire at the age of 79.  In recognition of being the fifth longest serving officer in the Navy's history, and the longest serving woman, Hopper was promoted to commodore [or one-star admiral] and, on board the USS Consitution in Boston Harbor in 1986, was awarded the highest non-combat military medal by then-President Reagan.


Oh, and just for fun, she then made an appearance on the David Letterman Show.

Hopper continued to work in the computer industry until her death at age 85 in 1992.  Of the many achievements that can be laid at her feet, perhaps the most piquant is the coining of particular term much beloved by IT specialists, computer coders, and frustrated office carrel residents.   When poking through the guts of an early computer to discover why it was acting in a non-optimal manner, a moth flew out of the works.  Once the computer was operational, Grace Hopper announced that the machine was now "de-bugged".

In these days when young women are being actively encouraged to find roles in the math and science fields, perhaps the greatest testimony to Hopper's influence may be found through a website named for her that renders information about the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.  Or, for those of a more martial nature, spend a few moments appreciating the sturdy and sophisticated computing system that allows an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer to function in a manner found daunting to our nation's enemies.

Now there's an officer who has earned a salute.  Or else.