Grace Hopper is called “Amazing Grace” for a good reason…

Human beings come in all shapes and sizes. There are those who snugly fit into the present times; there are those who seem like they were cut out perfectly for times just past and then there are those who are clearly ahead of their times. Grace Murray Hopper belonged to this last category, accomplishing feats that were away from the reach of women of her times, and beyond the grasp of men.

Born Grace Brewster Murray in 1906, Hopper was the eldest in a family of three children. Her parents believed that their two daughters had to get the same privileges as their only son, and Hopper made the most of it, helped along by her own curiosity.

At the age of seven, she was already showing signs of what was to become a lifelong obsession: a weakness for gadgets and finding out how they work. She dismantled an alarm clock and being unable to fathom how it works, went on to do the same for six more before being restricted to a single one by her mother.

She became a Vassar Fellow and took her Master’s degree from Yale in 1930 and a PhD in 1934. Between the calendar years of 1900 and 1940, only 219 women earned PhD’s in mathematics at US universities, putting into perspective Hopper’s achievement.

Once the war broke out, Hopper left her teaching position to join the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). After her training, she was sent to work on Harvard Mark I, one of the world’s first large-scale computers based out of Harvard University.

Working under Howard H. Aiken, she was fascinated by the 51 foot long, 8 foot high machine that was filled with vacuum tubes, relays and switches the same way she was by the alarm clock when she was seven. As a mathematician with no computing background, it was here that she was introduced to her life’s work.

On this day in 1947, the Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator experienced problems and investigations revealed that a moth was trapped between the points of Relay #70, in Panel F. Once the operators removed the moth, they affixed it into the log with an entry stating “First actual case of bug being found.”

Though Hopper always admitted that she was never there when this incident actually happened, it increasingly came to be attributed to her. So much so that the words bug and debug that we now associate with programming are believed to have stemmed out of this incident and are hence often credited to her. We know, however, that the term bug was already doing the rounds in engineering jargon to describe mechanical malfunctions. This incident, nonetheless, contributed to the acceptance of the term in computer programming and also lent to its widespread usage.

Hopper went on to work with UNIVAC, the world’s first commercial computer. She suggested standardising programming with a natural language, which led to the development of the FLOW-MATIC compiler for UNIVAC. FLOW-MATIC became the basis for COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language), a programming language that was primarily designed by Hopper and went on to become one of the most widely used in the previous century.

ganesh.a.s@thehindu.co.in