Overheard: Word of the Day

Sep 20 2007   2:19PM GMT

Overheard – Grace Hopper

Margaret Rouse Margaret Rouse Profile: Margaret Rouse

grace.jpg “The wonderful thing about standards is that there’s so many of them to choose from.”

Andrew Tanenbaum, quoting Grace Murray Hopper

I would like to nominate December 9th, the birthday of Admiral Grace Hopper, to be our first international IT holiday. Why Grace Hopper, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. Anyone whose obituary in Time magazine says “She is perhaps best known for having said “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” deserves a holiday named after her.

How would we celebrate Grace Hopper Day, you ask? Let’s take a quick look at some of Admiral Hopper’s contributions and see what we can come up with.

Grace Murray Hopper, a pioneer in computer science, is generally credited with developments that led to COBOL, the programming language for business applications on which the world’s largest corporations ran for more than a generation. After receiving her Ph.D. in mathematics at Yale, Hopper worked as an associate professor at Vassar College before joining the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943. She went on to work as a researcher and mathematician at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. and the Sperry Corporation. Having retired from the Navy after World War II, she returned in 1967 to work at the Naval Data Automation Command. By the time of her death in 1992, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper had left many contributions to the field of software engineering and was arguably the world’s most famous programmer.

But here are some lesser-known facts:

  • The clock in her office ran counterclockwise to remind her that there’s always more than one way to do something.
  • She hated the words “because we’ve always done it this way.”
  • She joked that she created COBOL because she didn’t like to balance her checkbook.
  • When she was a child, she practiced her troubleshooting skills (not always successfully) by taking apart alarm clocks.
  • She called her Admiral’s uniform her “identifier” and used it to remind listeners that every record in a computer must have a unique identifier so it can store data and retrieve it later.
  • During her lifetime, she was a popular TV talk show guest.
  • She chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes.
  • She liked to be introduced as the “third programmer on the first large-scale digital computer.”
  • She is credited with applying the engineering term “bug” to computing when her team found a moth trapped in a relay of the MarkII computer. It was a joke, but the moth is now in the Smithsonian.
  • She was first asked to resign from the Navy when she was 40 because she was too old. By the time she was 80, President Reagan had to go before Congress once a year to get permission for her NOT to have to resign from the Navy. She is quoted as saying “I seem to be doing a lot of retiring.”

Amazing Grace, as Admiral Hopper was often called, was a colorful woman who might inspire some interesting ways to celebrate a holiday, don’t you think?

I can just see it. On December 9, we’ll all gather together in hyperspace and celebrate (virtually, of course) Grace Hopper Day. If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to see what your co-workers pick as their “unique identifier.” We can all spend the day troubleshooting and brainstorming new ways to solve old problems.

Here’s Grace Hopper on one of the first David Letterman Shows:

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://youtube.com/v/57bfxsiVTd4″ width=”300″ height=”225″ wmode=”transparent” /]

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