Amazing Grace

By Donald Christiansen

The amazing Grace Hopper defied the odds to become a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and one of the most important figures in computing history. Oh, and by the way, she was a Fellow of the IEEE and a member of the Editorial Board of IEEE Spectrum.

Grace Murray Hopper was born in New York City in December 1906. During the Roaring ’20s, she completed her college prep studies at the private Hartridge School in Plainfield, N.J., and went on to Vassar College, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in mathematics and physics. She then joined the Vassar faculty and continued her studies in math at Yale, earning her M.A. in 1930 and her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, Grace attempted to join the Navy. But at 34, she was considered too old for enlistment, and her role as a civilian math professor was deemed crucial. At a height of 5’ 6” her 105-pound weight was some 15 pounds short of the Navy requirement. Nevertheless, encouraged perhaps by her great-grandfather’s service as a rear admiral, she persisted, and was sworn into the Navy in December 1943. She then attended the Navy’s Midshipman’s School in Northampton, Mass. She graduated first in her class and was commissioned a lieutenant, j.g., and ordered to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard. Thus began her 43 years of service to the Navy.

Arriving at Harvard, she was greeted by Navy Commander Howard H. Aiken. He pointed to a massive computer and gave her a codebook that she said was to permit her to learn “how to program the beast and to get a program running” in a week. This was her first introduction to computers.  In 1974, when asked how she became interested in computing, she said that she had no choice, “I was ordered to [work on] the first computer in the United States by the United States Navy.” It was the Mark I, a concept of Howard Aiken’s, begun by him in 1937 while a grad student at Harvard.

During Hopper’s first year with Aiken, he assigned her the task of writing a manual for the Mark I, insisting that she read Charles Babbage’s autobiography to familiarize herself with many of the basic computing concepts. Ultimately her manual was 561 pages in length.

The Harvard Mark I was built at IBM in collaboration with Aiken, who in exchange relinquished his rights to the design to IBM. IBM’s president, Thomas J. Watson, Sr., donated the finished electromechanical computer to Harvard. It was 50 feet long, 8 feet tall, and 8 feet deep, with more than 750,000 parts. Its mechanical parts were driven by a four-horsepower motor through a system of interlocking gears, switches, counters, and control circuits. A mathematical problem (e.g., the solution to a differential equation) would be coded and corresponding holes punched by a human operator into a four-inch wide paper tape. Mechanical feelers in the computer sensed the holes and activated the required relays.


Hopper remained at the Harvard location with Aiken until 1947, when she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation as a senior mathematician and a member of the team developing  UNIVAC I. She was part of a small software group working for John Mauchly.

The UNIVAC, an electronic digital computer, was designed to handle both numerical and alphabetic characters. When  initially developing the UNIVAC, Hopper recalled, her design group agreed that if it failed, they would throw it out the window on the side of the building facing a junkyard, and they themselves would jump out the other side into a graveyard! No need for either. UNIVAC was a great success.

The Compiler and COBOL

Hopper did pioneering work on the compiler, the intermediate program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer. She completed her first commercial compiler for Sperry-Rand in 1952, claiming she “was lazy, and hoped that the programmer may return to being a mathematician.” Her later FLOW-MATIC compiler fostered COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) which went on to become the most ubiquitous business language.

In 1952, she was promoted to Navy lieutenant commander, and the Navy Bureau of Ordnance asked UNIVAC to allow her time to give talks on digital computers to naval reserve officers. Over the next 33 years she became one of the Navy’s most wanted speakers, with lectures on subjects ranging from other applications of UNIVAC to engineering, statistical, and business problems, and to advanced programming techniques.

During her service as director of the Navy Programming Languages Group (1967-1977), she developed validation software for COBOL and its compiler as part of a COBOL standardization program for the entire Navy. During this period she was promoted to captain and developed standards for testing systems and components, including COBOL and FORTRAN languages. The administration of these tests was assumed by the National Bureau of Standards, and resulted in a significant convergence in programming language dialects by the major computer vendors.

No Boss Needed

In the military, where one is expected to be subservient to one’s superiors, Grace did not conform. In both group meetings and one-on-one discussions, she overlooked the issue of who the “boss” was. She focused on the topic at hand. John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy from 1981 to 1987, said that Hopper once gave him “a stern lecture on computers . . . the roughest wire-brushing I’ve had since I got this job.” In still another interview, Lehman added “She drove the Navy into the computer age with whips and scourges . . . (and) had a tremendously forceful and creative personality as well as a sense of humor.” Her final Navy boss, Kenton Hancock, said “We never would presume to argue with her because we realized going in we can’t win.”

Commander Hopper was promoted to captain in 1973 and, by special Presidential appointment, to commodore in 1983. Her rank of commodore was changed to rear admiral in 1985. Admiral Hopper celebrated her final Navy retirement at age 79, in 1986, aboard the 188-year-old U.S.S. Constitution. She then joined the Digital Equipment Corporation as a senior consultant, where she traveled and lectured widely, always in her full-dress Navy uniform.

Grace Hopper died on New Year’s Day in 1992 at age 85. She had long expressed her wish to be buried at sea, but had changed her mind and was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Her flag-draped coffin was horse-drawn to an area overlooking the Washington Memorial.

During her lifetime, Hopper received numerous awards and recognitions, including 40 honorary university degrees. And after her death the honors did not end. Among them were the 1996 launching of the USS Hopper, DDG-70, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer at the Bath Iron Works, and in 2009 the naming of its flagship system “Hopper” by the Department of Energy’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. In 2016, Hopper was posthumously honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

Although she was extremely proud of her service in the Navy and her programming of and operating the Mark I, Hopper said that nothing she had ever done was intellectually great, just “basically common sense—no mathematical genius, no theory.”

Her brother Roger insisted that she had devoted her life to teaching—“Once a teacher, always a teacher,” he said.

The superior teacher must be a good learner, and Hopper was both.


  • Williams, K.B., Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea, Naval Institute Press, 2004.
  • Hopper, G., A Manual of Operation for the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, Harvard University Press, 1946.
  • Hopper, G., and J. Mauchly, “Influence of Programming Techniques on the Design of Computers,” Proceedings of the IRE, Oct. 1953.
  • Hopper, G., “First Glossary of Programming Terminology,” Assn. for Computing Machinery, 1954.
  • “The Wit and Wisdom of Grace Hopper,” (retrieved Apr. 21, 2020)
  • “Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, USN” Adapted and updated from Grace Murray Hopper U. S. Naval Reserve biography dated July 1981 in Modern Biography Files Collection, Navy Department Library. (retrieved Apr. 21, 2020)
  • Plainfield Courier News, “Plainfielder’s Niece is Operator of Robot Einstein,” Aug. 8, 1944, p. 1.
  • Billings, C. W., Grace Hopper: Navy Admiral and Computer Pioneer, Enslow, 1989.
  • Hancock, J. B., Lady in the Navy, Naval Institute Press, 1972.
  • Cushman, J. H., “Admiral Hopper’s Farewell,” The New York Times, May 14, 1986.
  • Betts, M., “Grace Hopper, Mother of Cobol,” Computerworld, 6, 1952.
  • Christiansen, J., “Grace Hopper Boosts Computers Far and Wide,” The Institute (IEEE), Jan. 1984, p. 16.
  • Grace Hopper Biography, The (retrieved Apr. 13, 2020)

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. He can be reached at

Donald Christiansen

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. His Backscatter columns can be found here.

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