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Woman in Science: Grace Hopper

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Grace Hopper was born on December 9, 1906 in New York City to talented parents who taught her the importance of intellectual pursuit. The oldest of three children, Grace grew up in an academically focused environment, with her parents enforcing the values of education, self reliance, and hard work; these values would prove to resonate throughout Grace’s life as her work became the cornerstone of computer science.

Grace was naturally passionate for academics. She attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, with a major in mathematics, and she furthered her education in graduate school at Yale University. Despite the Great Depression of the 1930s, Grace fostered her career in mathematics working as a math professor at her alma mater, Vassar College. She was lauded for her creative teaching approach by incorporating other subjects into her lectures. Eventually, Hopper earned her Ph.D. from Yale University and continued her career as an associate professor at Vassar. Hopper was one of only four females in the doctoral program, a rare accomplishment for her time.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Grace embarked on her next endeavor: joining the Navy. Just as Grace excelled in academia, she applied the same enthusiasm to her naval training. She achieved the highest training rank of battalion commander and graduated first in her class in 1944 at Women’s Midshipman School in Northampton, Massachusetts.

As part of her military duty, Hopper worked at the Harvard University Computation Laboratory alongside Commander Howard Aiken. Hopper and Aiken’s assignment was to work on the fifty-one foot long electromechanical Harvard Mark I computer. The purpose of this miraculous machinery was to calculate the aim of naval weaponry. This technological innovation had increased computing productivity exponentially, accelerating calculation time from one month to a mere twenty-four hours.

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Grace Hopper is most noted for her foundational contribution to computer science: the compiler. A compiler is a program that “translates” human language into machine code. This system assigned a specific English word to a corresponding machine-code command for a computer to understand. Her revolutionary invention of the A-0 compiler made computer programming more accessible and efficient, impacting business, industry, academia, and the military.

Given her immense accomplishments, “Amazing Grace” humbly felt that her greatest contribution was “all the young people I’ve trained.” For her immense contributions to science and society at large, Hopper earned the prestigious National Medal of Technology in 1991 and was posthumously honored with the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2016. Hopper’s legacy of pioneering the path for females in science and military as well as her inspiring passion and perseverance have and will continue to inspire women in their pursuit of achievement.

By Kathleen Martin’17, Guest Writer

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