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Celebrating Grace Hopper: Computer Science Pioneer & Capitol Tech Commencement Speaker

Have you ever heard the phrase “there’s a bug in the system?” We have Grace Hopper to thank for that iconic phrase that is now ubiquitously known to mean there is a flaw in a program affecting its ability to perform a desired task.

Hopper, born December 9, 1906 in New York, was an accomplished mathematician who taught students this subject at Vassar College while attending Yale University’s graduate school before she achieved her two big claims to fame: becoming an Admiral in the US Navy and earning a spot as one of the first and most influential computer programmers.

Hopper joined the Naval Reserve also known as the Women’s Reserve in 1943, the same year she earned her PhD in mathematics and mathematical physics from Yale. While in the Reserves, Hopper was assigned to work on by Harvard University’s Bureau of Ships Computation Project where she met Howard Aiken, a fellow computer science industry leader. Aiken, who created the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator also known as the Mark I, was an important influence on Hopper who programmed much of Mark 1, wrote the user manual marking for the calculator, and worked on subsequent “Mark” models.

During this time, on September 9, 1947 at 3:45 p.m. to be precise, Hopper recorded observing an actual bug (a moth) that was “stuck between relay contacts in the computer, which Hopper duly taped into the Mark II's log book with the explanation: “First actual case of bug being found”3. Because of her military connections and her service coinciding with World War II (WWII), Hopper and her teammates worked on war efforts including programing unmanned systems such as the trajectories of rockets.

In 1949, Hopper took the next step in her impactful computer science career by taking a position with the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation “where she designed an improved compiler, which translated a programmer’s instructions into computer codes” and later, despite the company changing hands, “developed Flow-Matic, the first English-language data-processing compiler” in 19571.

While Hopper undeniably made many important contributions to society and the field of computer science, she also made an impact on Capitol Technology University’s history. On June 20, 1987, Hopper, then known as Retired Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper USNR, delivered the graduation address and received the honorary degree of Doctor of Science. Hopper who was retired from the Navy at the time, worked as a consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation. In preparation for the 1987 commencement ceremony, G. William Troxler Capitol Tech’s president at the time, wrote:

"Still going strong, this long-time mover and shaker of technology and society has many more predictions to make about our technical future. She is a captivating, entertaining, humorous and at times irreverent speaker."

Grace Hopper

During her commencement speech, Hopper told graduates:

"You are the future. I think sometimes you tend to forget that we're all going to be gone, and you are the ones who are going to run this country, our business, our laws, our towns, our counties. It's going to be your job. You are the future and probably the most important people that we have here today.  Nowadays, I know everybody is telling you to make a life plan. Between you and me and the gatepost, there's no use in doing that because it won't last. I learned that rather acutely. I started off with a life plan–I was going to be a college professor. I got to be an associate professor, and what happened? World War II. I joined the Navy and met computers."

In this photo, Hopper showed the audience a length of wire measuring 11.78 Inches, the distance that light travels In one nanosecond. 

Capitol Tech is honored to have shared a moment and memory with Grace Hopper who passed on January 1, 1992.


References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica. (2020, December 5). Grace Hopper. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Grace-Hopper.
  2. Yale University. (2017, February 10). Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992): A legacy of innovation and service. Retrieved from https://news.yale.edu/2017/02/10/grace-murray-hopper-1906-1992-legacy-innovation-and-service.
  3. Computer History Museum. (2020). WHAT HAPPENED ON SEPTEMBER 9TH. Retrieved from https://www.computerhistory.org/tdih/September/9/#:~:text=The%20problem%20was%20traced%20to,Hopper%20made%20the%20logbook%20entry.