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Grace Hopper Shattered Stereotypes for Women in the Navy

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. Source: US Navy.

Admiral Alexander Wilson Russell, a Union naval officer during the Civil War, took a dim view of women serving in the Navy.

His great-granddaughter changed that outlook.

Entering the world in 1906, Grace Hopper displayed a precious intelligence.  At age seven, she disassembled all of the family’s alarm clocks to see how they worked before reassembling them.

Her parents encouraged her curiosity, and in time she attended Yale University where she earned her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934.  

Hopper was one of the first women to do so.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hopper wanted to follow in her great-grandfather’s footsteps by serving in the Navy.

In 1942 she attempted to enlist in the newly created Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program.

Hopper was informed she was too old, too small and too needed as a mathematics instructor in the civilian world.

She pushed back, and in December of 1943 she enlisted.  

In June 1944 she graduated at the top of her class.

First Assignment

Soon after on July 2, Hopper reported to duty at Harvard University to work on the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project, headed by professor Howard Aiken.

A physics and mathematics professor, he ran a laboratory where an Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, better known as the Mark I, analyzed new weapons.

“That’s a computing engine,” Aiken informed Hopper as he pointed at the Mark I.

“I would be delighted to have the coefficients for the interpolation of the arc tangent by next Thursday.”

Hopper successfully completed the assignment.

In short order Hopper learned how the Mark I – all 750,000 parts, 530 miles of wire and three million wire connections in an eight-foot-high, 50-foot wide machine – worked.

During one shift, she traced a glitch back to a moth ensnared on a relay wire.  After removing the moth (and taping the moth to her report), the system worked.

From then on, fixing a problem with a computer program would be referred to as “debugging.”

Released from active duty in 1946, Hopper remained in the Naval Reserve while working as a contractor on the Mark II and Mark III computers.

Three years later, Hooper worked at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation where she developed a system to compile mathematic code into a language.

“No one believed that,” she said in an interview at the time, “and nobody would touch it.”

By late 1959 Hooper had silenced her critics, and the newly compiled computer language called COBOL (Common Business Operating Language) became the universally accepted computer coding language of that time.

In 1966, the Commander Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve.

The Navy Changes Course

Source: Nat. Museum of American History.

But the Navy changed its mind.

Recalled to active duty in August 1967 for a six-month period, Hopper would remain activated for 19 years.

Promoted to captain in 1973, Hopper continued to develop software and program language for COBOL as part of the Navy’s standardization program.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan promoted Hopper to Commodore. In 1985 the rank was reclassified as Rear Admiral, making her the second woman to hold that rank.

On August 14, 1986, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper retired from the Navy she had proudly served in for 43 years.

She passed on January 1, 1992; four years later the SS Hopper (DDG-70), a guided missile destroyer, was named in her honor.

Her career had removed all stereotypes about women serving in the Navy.

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