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29 days ago

#130 Grace Hopper

A pioneer in programming languages.

Transcript
David Kopec

Grace Hopper is an incredible person, one of the most notable figures in the history of computer science, the creator of one of the first programming languages with an english like syntax, and one of the first compilers. Today, we'll discuss her contributions. Welcome to CoPEC explained software, the podcast where we make computing intelligible. In this episode, we're going to discuss the history and contributions of Grace Hopper, one of the most important people in the history of computer science. So, Rebecca, where did Grace's story begin?

Rebecca Kopec

Grace's story begins in New York City. She was born there in 1906. She was Grace Murray. Murray is her maiden name, and she was the oldest of three.

David Kopec

Okay. And from a young age, she always had two interests that would weave in and out of her life. One is an interest in the navy. She actually had a great grandfather who was an admiral in the Civil War. And another is an interest in how things work. There's an anecdote in one documentary we watched about her that she liked to take alarm clocks apart, and she took so many alarm clocks apart that it made her mom mad. And she had to say, you can just have this one alarm clock that you can take apart to see how it works. So she always had this kind of analytical how do things work? Mind?

Rebecca Kopec

And you see that in the areas of study that she chose at Vassar as an undergraduate student, she studied mathematics and physics.

David Kopec

So she completes her bachelor's degree in 1928, and then she goes on to Yale, where she does a master's in mathematics as well as eventually a PhD. She meets a professor not at Yale, but at NYU named Vincent Hopper, who she marries in 1930. And they're married for 15 years, from 1930 to 1945. There's not a lot of details about that marriage in the documentary evidence that we saw, but it ends, it seems kind of as an unhappy marriage. During World War II, while she was.

Rebecca Kopec

Getting her PhD, she was also working as a professor at Vassar, and she.

David Kopec

Continues working as a mathematics professor at Vassar all the way through to World War II. And, of course, the United States enters World War II in 1941, and World War II ends in 1945. In 1943 is when she decides to try to join the navy.

Rebecca Kopec

But unfortunately, she was told, no, she wouldn't be allowed into the Navy. And it was actually because she was underweight.

David Kopec

Yeah, she only weighed 105 pounds, and you had to be 120 pounds to join the Navy. So instead, she joins a set of women who work in the navy reserves known as waves.

Rebecca Kopec

So in the waves, she was assigned to work in a lab at Harvard.

David Kopec

Working on one of the first ever digital computers and the first ever in the United States called the Mark one. The mark I was originally developed by IBM and then shipped to Harvard, where it was being worked on by a team that was a combination of Harvard and folks from the US Navy. And one of the chief uses of these early computers was for ballistics calculations. In other words, you have a missile and you want to know what trajectory it should be shot at to go to some destination, or you're developing a new missile or a new kind of bomb. And as you might imagine, there's a lot of math and physics involved that used to be done by hand, and now these early computers could be used to speed up the process in the lab.

Rebecca Kopec

She was the second in command there, the second highest ranking naval officer.

David Kopec

And one little interesting anecdote from this time is she didn't know she was working on it, but she actually was working on some of the calculations for the first atomic bomb. The Manhattan project, of course, was kept extremely secret. Everyone was on a need to know basis. Even people working on some of the key calculations didn't know that they were actually working on calculations for the atomic bomb. And the specific calculations she was working on were for what should the size of the bomb be so that itself implodes when it hits its destination. So later on, they were, of course, shocked to find out that this is what they were working on. So she didn't know that she was working on that.

Rebecca Kopec

One of the other things she was working on there, and this one she was certainly well aware of, she wrote what is considered the first manual for programming a computer.

David Kopec

Right? So these early mark computers that were being developed needed to actually have documentation. How do you use them? How do you write a program for them? So her manual for the Mark one is sometimes considered one of the first ever programming textbooks because it didn't only teach well, this is how you use the computer, but this is how you program it. And so as a programming book writer myself, I guess she's kind of my predecessor and the predecessor of hundreds of thousands of other authors in this field. But somebody had to be first, and it's considered a well written manual. Now, she really enjoyed her work on these early computers, and she was one of the first computer programmers and quite talented at it. But unfortunately, she couldn't continue in either the Navy or at Harvard.

Rebecca Kopec

Yeah, at Harvard, she wasn't able to get a professorship, even though she was certainly qualified, because she was a woman. And in the Navy, she couldn't continue because she was too old. She was 38 at the end of the war.

David Kopec

And in one of the documentaries that we watched, and I'm going to link to them in the show notes, she was said to be quite depressed in this period, having been rejected both from her continuance at Harvard and from the Navy. She actually turned to alcohol and became something of an alcoholic, was actually arrested for some disorderly conduct. She also smoked throughout her life. That's just a side thing, but if you hear her voice later on, and I'm going to link to a couple lectures she did in the show notes, you'll notice there's kind of that husk to it from smoking, but that was just common back then. Everyone basically smoked in the 1940s.

Rebecca Kopec

Luckily, in 1949, she earned and had a new opportunity that was outside academia and outside the Navy. She started working for the Eckhart Mockley.

David Kopec

Computer Corporation, and this is actually a critical early computer corporation. They developed one of the first commercial computer lines, the Univac line, and she was on that team that developed the first Univac. And then she went on to be the head of their team for automatic programming, which you can think about as basically the first software team for that company. The word software wasn't in as common use yet, but basically she was the head of their software team.

Rebecca Kopec

So now we're in the early fifty s, and this is where we see something kind of interesting happening in Grace Hopper's professional career. She starts talking about, and presumably thinking about the idea that programming languages should be understandable to a regular person.

David Kopec

For example, you might have a business user who wants to program a computer, but they don't have a background in mathematics. They certainly don't have a PhD in mathematics like she does. And they're going to have difficulty using some of these really early computer languages that are mostly just mathematical symbols or mathematical operations. So she has this really critical idea, and I would say this might be the most important contribution that she made. Amongst her many contributions, the idea that we should have programming languages with English like syntax, so that you don't need to be a mathematician to be able to program the computer, and you don't need to understand something as low level as, like a machine language or an assembly language. So you could almost think about it as the first idea of a high level programming language. And we talked about what is a programming language on a prior episode that I'll link to in the show notes. But this is a key link between early computers that are only accessible to mathematicians, highly skilled technicians, and computers that are accessible to everybody. We kind of continued that theme in our episode on Basic, which I'll also link to in the show notes. But before you have programming languages that are trying to be accessible to everyday people, you need to at least have programming languages that are in a syntax that a regular person can read. And having an english like syntax was truly her idea. She was truly first. And not only did she have the idea, she implemented it.

Rebecca Kopec

She developed a programming language. She created one called Flowmatic.

David Kopec

To create that programming language, she had to write one of the first compilers. We did a prior episode on compilers I'll also link to in the show notes, but compilers basically take a programming language and convert them into machine code. You can think about them as translators. They take the original text, file the source code, and turn it into something the microprocessor on the computer can understand. So she was one of the first ever compiler authors. But more importantly than that, she wrote the first compiler for a programming language with an Englishlike syntax. And I think this is such an important contribution. And it's also notable that she didn't just have the idea, but also the skills to actually implement it. So many times in the history of computing and in software, people talk about visionaries, but it's rare that you have somebody who's a visionary, who's also an implementer. And if she hadn't been there at the right time, the right place, the right skill set, the right ideas, I think things would have been a couple years behind. The entire timeline of software would have been a couple years back. You needed to have somebody with the vision and the skill set and the can do spirit to actually get it done. So she develops flowmatic, which is really the first programming language for data processing with an Englishlike syntax. And the beta of it, or you might say a demonstration of it, a prototype of it comes out in 1955. A few years later, it actually is released as a commercial language in, I believe it was 1958. Yes. So 1958 is a prime time for new programming languages. That's also around within a year of Fortran, within a year of Lisp. But she had already had the idea. Back in 52 she wrote a paper, and then in 55 she had already developed the demonstration. So we can really say that she was first of having an english like syntax programming language and developing a working version of it. This is a huge contribution. If this has been all she did, that alone should have her in the record books. That alone should have her earning awards. But she went on and did much more.

Rebecca Kopec

Actually, that's true. She was really involved or influential, I guess I should say, in the development of the programming language Cobol.

David Kopec

She was an advisor to the committee that developed Cobol. And we'll link in the show notes to an article by one of her colleagues that goes into the early history of cobalt. But basically, she was the inspiration in many ways for cobalt, because Cobalt looked at what were the existing programming languages that were out there. They looked at things like Fortran, but they were most inspired, according to this paper, by flowmatic. So flowmatic directly leads to Cobalt. And cobalt becomes a very important programming language used by businesses from when it's released around 1960 all the way to today. In fact, just a couple of years ago, there was this notable national shortage of cobalt programmers because there's so many old systems and government and large corporations that are still using this programming language. Even though it might not be something you hear about too much as a layperson or as somebody who's just a normal software developer, it's still used. And if we didn't have flowmatic, we wouldn't have cobalt. And we have Grace Hopper not only as the inspiration, but also one of the key technical advisors to the cobalt committee.

Rebecca Kopec

Throughout this time, she actually stays in the Navy reserves, but is able to get into or be brought back to active duty Navy to continue her career.

David Kopec

She leaves Sperry Rand Corporation, which was kind of a successor to Mockley Eckard.

Rebecca Kopec

Yeah. Went through a few different iterations that company. Yeah. And so from 1967 to 1977, she's the director of Navy programming languages. And I think sometimes this might sound a little strange to us, right, that the Navy was so involved in early programming, or the military was. But the military has been really involved in the development of computers and of.

David Kopec

Programming, just to mention a few things. I mean, we already heard from this story that back during World War II is when the Mark one is being developed largely for military operations. And that spurs the development of the first programming languages and the first computers and eventually the first commercial computers. Of course, the military was involved in the early development of the Internet through DARPA. And we know that the military continued to do a lot of important research in programming languages. And Grace Hopper was involved in that through the Navy. And during this period, she's not only involved in the continual development of programming languages, but also as kind of like a spokesperson for the whole field of computer science. She does a lot of public lectures. She inspires a lot of young people to get into the field. And there's some great recordings of those lectures on YouTube. Rebecca and I started watching a couple of them, and it was interesting to see her incredible humor and ability to really take concepts that are quite technical in nature and explain them in a way that a layperson or somebody who just has some interest in the field can really understand. And a little interesting note about this is we know that actually the person she did her PhD with had a similar edge to them.

Rebecca Kopec

Yes, Dr. Orr. Einstein Orr. I apologize. I'm probably not pronouncing his name correctly. He's from Norway. He was a mathematician. And one of the things that he was known for was about really helping to make really complex math concepts and figures accessible to others. And so he not only was well known for his technical work and an accomplished mathematician, but was someone who did focus on the communication. And how do you share about these complex topics? One of the things that I most enjoyed learning about Grace Hopper was how that was a real passion of hers, actually. That was something that she was really proud of in her career, was about making programming accessible, inspiring younger new professionals or people who were learning under her. She really took that seriously. She started her career as a professor, as a teacher, and I don't think she ever really stepped away from that.

David Kopec

Yeah, I think that's really notable. And she actually starts this career transition going from being a professor to being in the naval reserves during World War II. At the age of 37. She'd already been working as a professor for, like, a decade. So that was actually key training for her. And it's amazing sometimes when people make their big contributions kind of later in life. Right. But how well the right things prepared them to do that. And she was exactly the right person to have this role in history.

Rebecca Kopec

In 1983, President Reagan promoted her to Commodore. That rank was eventually changed to rear admiral. So that's when she becomes Admiral Grace Hopper.

David Kopec

And she won several of our nation's highest awards, and we're speaking about our nation as Americans. One is the Presidential Medal of Freedom and also the Presidential Technology Medal as well.

Rebecca Kopec

In 1986, she retired from the Navy. She was 79 at the time, and she was the oldest person serving in active duty. She actually had to get a special permission from Congress to be allowed to continue serving, to continue serving at her advanced age. But it was something that this country, the Congress, and the Navy wanted, and so did she, I should add.

David Kopec

And she goes on to be an advisor to deck corporation. So to just show you what a wealth of experience and insight this person had, here's somebody in their 80s who's being employed by a cutting edge technology corporation to be their advisor.

Rebecca Kopec

She was also a little bit of a rebel. That's one of the things we heard, too. As a computer programmer, she liked to do things a little bit differently, and she was okay with breaking things to figure out how they work. That was like that kind of attitude, which I think is pretty neat. Even though she was in the military, which you would expect someone to be very much a rule follower there. Even when she was at deck and she would go and do a lot of speaking engagements, she would continue to wear her admiral uniform, which technically was against the rules. But I guess once you've earned that level, you get to wear that uniform if you want to. No one was going to stop her.

David Kopec

Today, one of the most important conferences for women in computer science in software is called the Grace Hopper conference in her honor. One thing I really want to emphasize here as we get to the end of our episode is what was her important contribution, if you had to really break it down in just a few sentences? Because I see a lot of literature that talks about her, a lot of short snippets about her that don't really understand, actually, what were the big technical contributions that she made? So I want to be really clear about that. In my opinion, it was developing the first programming language with an english like syntax. And if she had been in France, it would have been a french like syntax. I only say English to mean a human language like syntax, not a machine language like syntax. And then not only having the idea for that, but actually developing the compiler for it as well. So having both the vision and the technical chops to bring that language to fruition, in some sense, that language is the predecessor of all modern programming languages, because all modern programming languages use a human language like syntax, not a machine like syntax. That's a huge contribution. He is the link between computers that were only accessible to mathematicians and highly skilled technicians, and computers that were accessible to everybody. And she said that explicitly in her early papers about this effort. She said it was important that we develop these programming languages that a normal business user, or normal user could access.

Rebecca Kopec

It's one of those ideas that is so expected at this point. Of course, a programming language needs to be human readable. Right. But at the time is revolutionary, and it's so outside of what anyone else was thinking.

David Kopec

Right. I do think it would have happened eventually anyway, but you can say that about almost any innovator, right. The fact is, she was the exact right person to do this. She had the right skill set, the right mindset, the right rebelliousness, the right thinking about things in a different angle to actually accomplish this. And I love it when somebody, again, I know I mentioned this earlier, though, is not just a visionary, but a doer, an implementer, somebody with the technical chops, because then they know what they're talking about and they back it up with their proof.

Rebecca Kopec

So. Well, Grace Hopper did pass away on New Year's Day in 1992. She was 85 at the time. She lived a really full, incredible life. And we're really lucky to continue to be learning about her legacy.

David Kopec

I think she's an inspiration to many young people to this day. All right, thanks for listening to us this week, Rebecca. How can people get in touch with us on X?

Rebecca Kopec

We're at COpEC, explains Kopecexplainf, and we'll.

David Kopec

Be back in a few weeks with another great episode. Thanks for listening. Bye.

Grace Hopper is one of the most iconic people in the world of software. Her career as a mathematician, software innovator, computer science advocate, programmer, and technical leader spanned the early era of computing through to the 1990s. One of the first notable computer programmers, Hopper developed the first programming text book, one of the first compilers, and perhaps most importantly she was the visionary who ideated and developed the first programming language with an English-like syntax. That programming language, FLOW-MATIC, was instrumental in the later development of COBOL, which she advised. COBOL is still used to this day. Her contributions were immense and her legacy has been honored by multiple national awards and the naming of the largest conference for women in software.

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