WeLiveSecurity looks back on the life of the pioneer of programming, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper of the US Navy, who changed the world of technology.
So the story goes something like this. In 1947, in Virginia, United States, an error was spotted on the Harvard Mark II, one of the world’s first programmable computers. A team went to investigate, discovering that a moth had been caught between a relay in a machine. It was then removed and taped to a logbook, accompanied by the following message: âFirst real bug detected. “
US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who worked on this machine, loved this story so much that she often told it to friends, colleagues and acquaintances, so much so that over the years she became inextricably linked to the idea of ââcomputer bugs, debugging and bugs in the machine. And so, besides being one of the pioneers of the computer age, she also coined one (or some) of the most famous phrases.
Except she didn’t. In what is one of the biggest attribution errors in computing (programming, in particular), the actual use of bug for “describe a technical problemâConsiderably precedes the use of Hopper.
This “moth mythAs Fred R. Shapiro described it in his Etymology of the Computer Bug: History and Folklore of 1987, “is rapidly becoming the most popular item of etymological folklore of our time.” Although Shapiro did not rule out the discovery of an actual moth in 1947, he believes the language of debugging was in use as early as 1889 (attributed to American inventor Thomas Edison).
“I had a compiler running and no one wanted to touch it, because, they carefully told me, computers could only do arithmetic.”
Whatever you think of this particular story, what is certain is Hopper’s innovative efforts in computing. For example, she was instrumental in the development of the first compiler, a program that transforms code into a language that can be understood and executed by a computer.
From this she is quoted as saying: âWhen compiling in ’51, nobody believed thatâ¦ I had a compiler running and nobody wanted to touch it, because, they carefully told me, computers could only do arithmetic, they cannot could not write programs. It was a sales job to get people to try it.
Other innovations from Hopper, who in 1934 became the first woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics in Yale University’s 233-year history – for her dissertation New Types of Irreducibility Criteria – included writing the revolutionary FLOW-MATIC. It was a programming language that helped move computing away from its mathematical roots (and limits) into a more complex and human environment. Basically she helped computers understand English.
It was a precursor of COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), a transformative and subsequently ubiquitous computer language that has advanced considerably on the foundations provided by FLOW-MATIC. As with computer bugs, Hopper is mistakenly credited with the development of COBOL. However, she certainly played a pivotal role in crafting a business case, and therefore, although she is often referred to as the âCOBOL Motherâ, the âCOBOL Grandmotherâ is more apt.
There’s a lot more to Hopper than that – his legacy goes way beyond IT. As seen by the team behind an upcoming documentary on the programming pioneer – tentatively titled Born with curiosity – her life coincided with and contributed to “the birth of the modern technological industry and the evolution of the role of women in American society”.
One of the annual ramifications Grace Hopper Celebration, which has been active since its founding in 1994 by Dr Anita Borg and Dr Telle Whitney. Today it is the largest technical conference of its kind in the world, designed to bring together female technologists to âlearn, exchange ideas and be inspiredâ.
“With the help of her incredible drive, passion and creativity, she has radically changed the world of technology as we know it.”
âWhat impresses me the most about Grace Hopper is that time and time again, she could have been taken from the path she took,â says Lysa Myers, ESET security researcher. âShe grew up at a time when women were specifically prohibited from doing much of what she wanted to do, and she was too light-hearted to enlist without special permission. But she was fearless. With the help of her incredible drive, passion and creativity, she has radically changed the world of technology as we know it.
This curious character, it goes without saying, is also a key aspect of his heritage. At the age of seven, according to another popular story, she was intrigued by the mechanics of an alarm clock. So, curiosity piqued, she began to dismantle seven of them to understand what was happening under the timepieces. What could she learn? What could be seen to include on the clocks? What was she going to change? These questions will later be applied to other challenges she has faced in her personal and professional life.
âHumans are allergic to change,â she once said. âThey love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I’m trying to fight this. This is why I have a clock on my wall that rotates counterclockwise. As she demonstrated with FLOW-MATIC, and later COBOL, nothing is impossible until you think about it.
This quest, to go beyond, is how we were able to get from a construction 51 feet long, eight feet high and five tons – the IBM Automatic Controlled Sequence Calculator (ASCC) – to something you can put “on a tiny corner of a chipâ. It is remarkable to say the least.
Hopper may not have discovered the first computer bug, invented debugging, or written COBOL, but she discovered a real moth nonetheless and made this thread what we remember. She also made COBOL a possibility, laying a new foundation for programming. Add to that her enthusiasm for programming, her aspirations to make the computer language accessible, it’s easy to see why she is considered one of the greats of the computer age.
âA ship in port is safe,â she once said. “But that’s not what ships are built for.”