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Faces of HPC: Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

‘Amazing Grace’ Hopper is known not only for writing the code for the Mark 1, but for her major contributions towards one of the first universal software languages, COBOL, and for revolutionizing computers as commercially accessible.


Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper earned her PhD in Mathematics. Rather than continuing as a professor during WW2, she joined the US naval reserves. Because of her background in mathematics, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project, where she worked on programming the Mark 1 computer. After the war, she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, later bought by Remington Rand Inc., where she worked on developing the first computer compiler. Inspired by this effort, Grace, along with the CODASYL team, developed the widely accepted computer language COBOL, which made computer programming accessible to a much larger user base. She is also known as ‘The Queen of Code,’ and ‘Grandma COBOL.’


Grace Brewster Murray was born in New York City in 1906. She attended Vassar College, and earned her degree in mathematics and physics in 1928. She was an instructor at Vassar while she worked towards her masters in 1930, and her PhD in 1934 from Yale. She remained an associate professor at Vassar until the outbreak of World War 2. Inspired by the wartime efforts, Grace decided to enlist in the naval reserve – the same branch in which her Grandfather had been posted. Although unfit to join, her experience and command of mathematics led to her assignment at the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project at Harvard University in 1943. 

Her task was to programme the IBM Automatic Sequence controlled Calculator, or Mark 1, at Harvard’s Cruft Laboratories. This computer was designed to quickly and accurately make wartime calculations, such as the trajectory paths of warheads. This task was, at the time, fulfilled by women volunteer ‘computers’ who ran the algebra by hand.

Working under Howard H. Aiken, Grace was responsible for taking the algebraic problems and translating them into code, readable by the machine on long paper punch tapes.

One of the first tasks set for the Mark 1 was given in 1944 by John Von Neumann. He had been working on the Manhattan project, and required a partial differential equation that could not be solved by the standard hand calculations of the ‘computers.’ This equation would detail the exact pressure points and conditions necessary to make a sphere collapse on itself. After 3 months of continuous calculations, the Mark 1 produced the necessary results. After the war, Grace found that the calculations she had helped to code were used to solve the implosion problem, used for the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan.

She later worked on Mark 2 and Mark 3 versions of the computer. After a moth was found in the Mark 2, causing errors, she helped popularize the term ‘computer bug’. She was awarded the Naval Ordinance Development Award for her pioneering success in programming the Mark 1-3 computers.

In 1949, Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. Previously, J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly had designed the ENIAC computer during the war, although the project was kept secret until the war’s resolution. In 1946, Eckert and Mauchly left to begin their own computer business. Their first client was the US Census Bureau, which needed a computer to handle the post-war ‘Baby Boom.’ The Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation was bought by Remington Rand Inc. in 1950, becoming the UNIVAC Division of Remington Rand. Grace worked as the head of the software division in programming the code for the first commercially available large-scale electronic digital computer, the UNIVAC 1.

During her work here, Grace and her team created the first compiler in 1951-2. This program could take human-readable language and translate it into command language for computers.

“I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it.” “They told me computers could only do arithmetic.”

Grace then began to advocate for a machine-independent computer language, as a result of many smaller companies then trying to produce commercial computers. Most of the users were not mathematicians or experts in computing, and Grace wanted to create a more accessible programming language. She joined the Conference on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL), and worked on developing COBOL, Common Business Oriented Language, which offered high-level programming in a language very similar to English. Grace, as part of the executive CODASYL team, produced the first COBOL specifications in 1959, and the language became both widely accepted and used.

She returned to active military service from 1967 to 1986, helping to standardize communication and compilers across different computer languages. For her work, she was awarded the first Computer Science Man of the Year Award in 1969, and in 1973, she became the first US citizen to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. She continued to actively promote various facets of computer science, especially towards younger generations, until her death in 1992.

Last updated: 30 Nov 2015 at 14:03