Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age

Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age

KURT BEYER
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 408
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hhgwc
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  • Book Info
    Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age
    Book Description:

    A Hollywood biopic about the life of computer pioneer Grace Murray Hopper (1906--1992) would go like this: a young professor abandons the ivy-covered walls of academia to serve her country in the Navy after Pearl Harbor and finds herself on the front lines of the computer revolution. She works hard to succeed in the all-male computer industry, is almost brought down by personal problems but survives them, and ends her career as a celebrated elder stateswoman of computing, a heroine to thousands, hailed as the inventor of computer programming. Throughout Hopper's later years, the popular media told this simplified version of her life story. In Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age, Kurt Beyer reveals a more authentic Hopper, a vibrant and complex woman whose career paralleled the meteoric trajectory of the postwar computer industry. Both rebellious and collaborative, Hopper was influential in male-dominated military and business organizations at a time when women were encouraged to devote themselves to housework and childbearing. Hopper's greatest technical achievement was to create the tools that would allow humans to communicate with computers in terms other than ones and zeroes. This advance influenced all future programming and software design and laid the foundation for the development of user-friendly personal computers.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-25856-2
    Subjects: History, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. SERIES FOREWORD
    (pp. IX-X)
    Arthur Molella and Joyce Bedi

    Invention and innovation have long been recognized as significant forces in American history, not only in technological realms but also as models in politics, society, and culture. They are arguably more important than previously thought in other societies as well. What there is no question about is that they have become the universal watchwords of the twenty-first century, so much so that nations are staking their futures on them.

    Since 1995, the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center has been investigating the history of invention and innovation from such broad interdisciplinary perspectives. So, too, does this series, the Lemelson Center Studies in Invention...

  4. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
    (pp. XI-XIV)
  5. 1 THE MYTH OF AMAZING GRACE
    (pp. 1-22)

    Recently I typed “Grace Hopper” into a popular Internet search engine and came up with more than a million “hits.” Though this number pales in comparison with those for other twentieth-century icons, say John F. Kennedy (11 million) or Elvis Presley (8 million), Hopper is unquestionably the most numerically popular computer pioneer on the Web.¹ The top results are an assortment of adoring websites dedicated to “Amazing Grace” or “The Grandmother of Cobol” and numerous quotations from Hopper herself. An image search produces hundreds of pictures of the petite, heavily wrinkled computer programmer proudly wearing her Navy uniform in the...

  6. 2 THE REBIRTH OF GRACE MURRAY HOPPER
    (pp. 23-44)

    “I can still remember December 7,” said Grace Hopper, reflecting on that fateful day in 1941. “The two of us were up in our study. We had a great double desk and we each had a window and solid books all around but there was a little radio up in the shop and I can remember the announcement of Pearl Harbor.”¹ Hopper and her husband Vincent sat in utter disbelief as trusted voices described the surprise aerial attack by the Japanese that killed 2,403 Americans, wounded 1,178, destroyed 188 aircraft, and sent a significant part of the Pacific Fleet to...

  7. 3 THE ORIGINS OF COMPUTER PROGRAMMING
    (pp. 45-72)

    How does one go about programming the world’s first operational computer? With mentors of limited knowledge and experience, Lieutenant Hopper was faced with the daunting task of making the Harvard Mark I’s 750,000 parts move with purpose and generate accurate solutions. These solutions, far from academic curiosities, were answers to problems with immediate military applications. In the face of unusual wartime pressures, Hopper relied on her ability to stay calm and rationally think through problems.

    The neophyte coder realized that she needed to understand the hardware of Mark I in all its intricate detail if she hoped to have the...

  8. 4 THE HARVARD COMPUTATION LABORATORY
    (pp. 73-106)

    The person most responsible for the Harvard Computation Laboratory’s unique culture was Howard Hathaway Aiken. Aiken’s leadership style was more akin to that of a foreman on a factory floor than to that of an Ivy League academic. This can probably be attributed to the fact that he had worked for the electric utilities industry for 13 years before matriculating as a doctoral candidate at Harvard. Aiken’s laboratory also differed markedly from more traditional academic environments because of its close relationship with the U.S. Navy. Unlike Robert Oppenheimer, who struggled to preserve civilian control of culture at Los Alamos, Aiken...

  9. 5 THE BEGINNING OF A COMPUTING COMMUNITY
    (pp. 107-140)

    During World War II, the crew of the Harvard Computation Laboratory constituted a significant portion of the emerging computer community. The members of the crew were bound together by shared ideas and knowledge, but being a member of the crew went beyond the sharing of technical information. The group cultivated its own style of being and sense of purpose. Howard Aiken, Grace Hopper, and the external influence of the Navy were all instrumental in developing this disposition, demeanor, and outlook. Ultimately the Harvard Computation Laboratory became more than just a place to house a large calculating machine. It was a...

  10. 6 THE 1947 HARVARD SYMPOSIUM ON LARGE-SCALE DIGITAL CALCULATING MACHINERY
    (pp. 141-174)

    By the beginning of 1947, Howard Aiken had taken his place among the elite of the budding computing community, and his staff, including Grace Hopper, basked in his glow. The newly minted Harvard Ph.D. who in 1940 had been informed by President James Conant that he would not be able to advance above faculty instructor was now a permanent fixture on the Harvard campus.¹ Aiken utilized the organizational and financial weight of the Navy to push a reluctant university to the forefront of mechanical computation and applied mathematics.

    Harvard’s heightened role within the computing community was physically represented by the...

  11. 7 STARING INTO THE ABYSS
    (pp. 175-212)

    On a cold night in November 1949, only 6 months after leaving Harvard and joining the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, Grace Murray Hopper found herself behind bars at the central Philadelphia police station. The programming pioneer was arrested at 3 a.m. for drunk and disorderly conduct. She was eventually placed in the custody of Pennsylvania General Hospital for treatment. Hopper’s life was unraveling. At the age of 43 she had accomplished much, yet her growing dependency on alcohol was jeopardizing her career and her relationships. As winter approached, Hopper even contemplated suicide by drowning herself in the Schuylkill River, something she...

  12. 8 THE EDUCATION OF A COMPUTER
    (pp. 213-246)

    One of the more difficult concepts for historians of technology to explain is that of invention. From patents and other written evidence, it may be simple to determinewhenandwherea certain technology came into being. What remains difficult for the historian is to determinehowandwhya certain technology was created. Answeringhowrequires insight into the process of invention. If we believe Thomas Edison’s maxim that invention is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration, then it follows that invention is not a completely serendipitous event. The inventor patiently prepares for inspiration to strike in a...

  13. 9 IBM ANSWERS REMINGTON RAND’S CHALLENGE
    (pp. 247-262)

    In the summer of 1949, when Grace Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, the International Business Machines Corporation controlled 90 percent of the market for mechanical calculators and punch-card machines, with annual revenues of $300 million. Apart from experimental work on the Harvard Mark I and the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator, IBM leadership firmly believed that the company’s future growth would be driven by mechanical punch-card technology. But within 10 years IBM was the undisputed leader in electronic computers, with more than 70 percent of the global market. IBM’s dominant position in the marketplace helped to drive annual revenues to...

  14. 10 THE DEVELOPMENT OF PROBLEM-ORIENTED LANGUAGES
    (pp. 263-276)

    On 13 May 1954, a little-known moment in computer history significantly affected programming development at both Remington Rand and IBM. Charlie Adams, a long-time member of MIT’s Project Whirlwind, presented a paper at an Office of Naval Research (ONR) symposium on automatic programming. Grace Hopper had organized the meeting in conjunction with the Navy in order to assess the state of the programming field. Adams described computer developments at MIT, including the work of J. Halcombe Laning Jr. and Neal Zierler. Laning and Zierler had applied emerging compiler techniques and had created what they called an algebraic compiler. The compiler...

  15. 11 DISTRIBUTED INVENTION MATURES: GRACE HOPPER AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF COBOL
    (pp. 277-310)

    By the late 1950s, Grace Hopper’s style of invention had taken full form. Though she had created the original A-0 compiler on her own, subsequent iterations of her prototype evolved out of a distributed process of invention and development. A-1, A-2, A-3, MATH-MATIC, and FLOW-MATIC were “invented” by Hopper in the sense that she coordinated the creative efforts of a heterogeneous group of programmers and users. Many of the co-inventors worked for her in Sperry Rand’s Automatic Programming Division, but Hopper did not limit her innovative alliances to her company’s borders.

    Input from users was a essential component of the...

  16. 12 INVENTING THE INFORMATION AGE
    (pp. 311-324)

    As the 1950s came to a close, Sperry Rand’s director of programming research Grace Hopper conducted an “experiment” to demonstrate how far the field of software development had advanced in the 15 years since she wrote her first code. Hopper would attempt to turn a “trim, attractive blonde” into a computer programmer. Hopper’s subject—Marilyn Mealey, a 19-year-old high school graduate from the Mayfair section of Philadelphia—was “prettier than average” and liked to swim and listen to records. According to Hopper, Marilyn was much like other young women who “window shop during their lunch hours and look forward to...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 325-380)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 381-390)