Sun 23rd Jun 2024

Celebrating the computer pioneer Grace Hopper

This International Women in Engineering Day, Catriona Collection reflects on the inspiring life of the computer pioneer Grace Hopper.

While diversity is improving in the workplace, and gender stigmas are becoming less prevalent, women continue to be underrepresented in engineering. Recent studies show women hold only 16.5% of engineering roles in the UK. We can’t expect the landscape of such a large industry to change overnight, but there is still a lot of work to be done to make the industry more representative.


Each year, on 23 June, International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) celebrates the talent of women engineers around the world. INWED is just one of many initiatives aiming to encourage more girls and women into a career in engineering.


INWED's theme for 2024 is “enhanced by engineering”.


Compilers are integral to computer programming. They take the source code, written in a human-interpretable programming language, and convert it into machine-readable code that can be executed by the computer. But did you know that the first compiler was developed by a woman?


Grace Hopper was a computer pioneer. After developing the first compiler (A-0), she proposed the idea of writing programs in words, rather than symbols. Although the idea was shot down by her contemporaries as impossible, Hopper continued working on an English-language compiler, and by 1956 her team was running FLOW-MATIC, the first programming language to use word commands.


Her motivation for creating a word-based programming language was to expand the community of computer users, devising a way in which more people would feel comfortable using computers. The introduction of word-based languages made computers accessible to people without an engineering or maths background. Hopper later commented:

“What I was after in beginning English language [programming] was to bring another whole group of people able to use the computer easily…I kept calling for more user-friendly languages. Most of the stuff we get from academicians, computer science people, is in no way adapted to people.”


FLOW-MATIC was an influence in the development if COBOL, a compiled English-like computer programming language designed for business use, which is still used today. Hopper took part in the Conference on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL), at which COBOL was formulated.


Not only did Hopper advance the field of computer science with her contributions to computer programming, but she also helped inspire future generations of programmers with her teaching, and introduce programming to people outside of academia. During her life, Hopper taught and lectured at Vassar College, University of Pennsylvania, Penn, George Washington University, and for the U.S. Naval Reserve. She also organised countless workshops and conferences outside of academia, promoting the understanding of computers and programming.


Hopper notably remarked, upon accepting the National Medal of Technology:

“If you ask me what accomplishment I’m most proud of, the answer would be all the young people I’ve trained over the years; that’s more important than writing the first compiler.”


Earlier in her life, during World War II, Hopper joined the Navy, and was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. There, she joined the team working on the first electromechanical computer in the US, known as MARK I. She and her colleagues also worked on a number of calculations for the war effort, including computing rocket trajectories, creating range tables for new anti-aircraft guns, and calibrating minesweepers. Hopper remained a Nay reservist throughout her career in the computer industry.


Hopper has been highly recognised for her contributions to computing. She was the recipient of more than forty honorary degrees; many scholarships, professorships, awards, and conferences are named in her honour. In 1973, she became the first woman and the first American to become a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. In 1991, President George Bush awarded Hopper the National Medal of Technology “for her pioneering accomplishments in the development of computer programming languages that simplified computer technology and opened the door to a significantly larger universe of users”.


Grace Hopper will forever be remembered for her contributions to computing and programming developments. However, there are so many female engineers who have, and still do, contributed to outstanding feats of engineering, and go unnoticed or underappreciated. Today, on International Women in Engineering Day, we celebrate the accomplishments of all female engineers.


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