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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Grace Hopper's 100th Birthday

I see that this past Friday was Grace Hopper's 100th birthday. Here is a personal reminiscense from my first professional IT experience:

In 1975 I was freshly graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in astrophysics. There were few opportunities for someone with an undergraduate degree in that field, so I took the civil service exam, and ended up taking the train from Philadelphia to Washington for the first time. I had hired on as an analyst for the national Military Command Systems Support Center at the Pentagon. We were some number of floors below the ground, responsible for keeping several military computers running. We were managed by the Navy, so even though we were far below dry earth, when a new officer arrived they were 'piped on board' in shipboard fashion.

Just around the corner from my cubicle was the very humble office of then Captain Grace Hopper. Having always been interested in the history of technology I recognized the name mainly due to her involvement in the development of compilers for the computer language Cobol. She gave a talk a few months after my arrival and I was impressed by her vision. Her talks gave a nod to computer history, which she had been a key part of, but even more so she was sincerely interested in the future of computing. In her talks then and for many years afterward she always carried a length of wire with her as a prop, this wire, she would declare, is a nanosecond ... equating time and computing power. She then would talk about where she thought computing was going. Her views were mainly about numerical rather than symbolic computing, but even in this realm she understood computers were stretching far beyond just numbers.

She was very rarely in her office, even then acting as an ambassador for military computing. I made it a point to stop by one day when she was there and introduced myself, a slightly longhaired young computer neophyte. She was gracious and invited me in. We hit it off because most of my work in school had been about solving differential equations, which had been an interest of hers. I was particularly interested in the pre-compiler world of the computer, when developing code was more like wiring a machine than writing logic. She also spoke about her involvement with Eckert and Mauchly, early pioneers of computer hardware. Looking back I should have had far more questions, but our chat ended far too soon. It was our only meeting, I moved on soon afterward, though we said hi a few more times in the hall.

She was appointed to admiral in 1985 and died in 1992, just as the Web had been developed. What might she have thought about that development? Many millions of non-technical people using 'Hypertext Transfer Protocol' to communicate? Her development of the compiler was a first step from numerical computing to using computers to manipulate text and communicate thoughts freely between ordinary people. She showed the way in the very early years and helped make it happen.

Good short overview of her life and achievements.

FA Dill June, 2004

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