Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age (Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation series)
Kurt W. Beyer
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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.
Lieutenant (j.g.) Hopper, Ensign Campbell. Courtesy of Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. THE REBIRTH OF GRACE MURRAY HOPPER 39 type of secret weapon that could change the outcome of the war. It was to be used to calculate solutions for rocket trajectories, proximity fuses, and mines, and to generate tables of mathematical functions that could be used to solve general engineering problems ranging from radio wave propagation to ship hull design.
tapes could not reverse themselves in order to input a previous command or number. Out of sheer necessity, Hopper and Bloch began to create innovative coding techniques to augment hardware performance. “As early as 1944 we started putting together things which would make it easier to write more accurate programs and get them written faster,” Hopper recalled.32 And like so many of her computing advances throughout her career, “educated” trial and error translated into innovation. “There was no
and the military. According to Hopper, Aiken saw himself ﬁrst as a Navy ofﬁcer and second as the head of an academically afﬁliated research facility. Aiken’s martial attitude and industry-based sensibilities affected both the nature of the laboratory’s research and the technical choices made by its personnel. Aiken was born 8 March 1900 in Hoboken, New Jersey. His hard personality was forged under extreme conditions. As a teenager (when the family lived in Indianapolis) he became ﬁnancially
achieved, the scientists theorized, an atomic chain reaction should release tremendous amounts of energy. One theory (proposed by Seth Neddermeyer) was to forcefully implode a sub-critical sphere by means of conventional explosives in order to compress it into a critical state. Von Neumann was called in to help develop a mathematical model for Neddermeyer’s implosion process. The resulting partial differential equations were extremely difﬁcult to solve for the Los Alamos human computers, with
interventions. Hence, the burden of writing out the sequential variations of instructions, as prepared by the Harvard crew during the implosion problem, was shifted from the coder to the machine. On balance, this does not mean that all credit should be given to the Harvard crew for the logical control and programming concepts included in “First Draft,” nor does it discount von Neumann’s intellectual capacity to generate original ideas. Creative concepts do not appear out of a vacuum, and during