(TNS) — NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Grace Murray Hopper was a brilliant leader who fought to achieve major accomplishments, according to her biographer.
Soon, her name will grace the Yale residential college at Elm and College streets, replacing that of the infamous slavery advocate John C. Calhoun. Yale University President Peter Salovey announced the renaming Saturday.
"Hopper's great strength through her career is she's a great leader. She's great at organizing people," said Kurt Beyer, author of "Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age," published in 2010.
Hopper was one of the founders of the information age, back in the 1940s, when everyone thought that each computer could be built to accomplish one task. "At the beginning of the computer age, every technology up to the first computers had a single purpose," said Beyer, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. A hammer is made for one purpose, and "the first computers were built the same way," Beyer said. "They were these massive calculating machines that would solve one problem."
Hopper, though, saw past those limits to a time when computers could be programmed to accomplish much more. If she didn't foresee the smartphone, she at least saw a way to make computers smarter. Her innovation was what we now call software. "That was her insight and she had to fight people on that also," Beyer said.
First, she created a compiler, which "allows us to write in English or mathematical equations and the compiler is the translator then for the computer [that] turns it into ones and zeroes," Beyer said.
She then helped popularize COBOL, a programming language that Beyer said is the basis of "70 percent of today's active programming codes." All of today's computer languages, whether C++ or Java, are based on COBOL. "They all follow Hopper's principles," Beyer said.
"She really is Steve Jobs, Bill Gates all wrapped into one, and neither of them would have a career if it weren't for her," he said.
After teaching at Vassar, Hopper joined the U.S. Navy's Women's Reserve during World War II. At first she was denied, because she was considered too short and too small, according to a Yale University press release. But she managed to overcome that hurdle, and it was in the Navy that she first began to work with computers, at the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. There she worked on top-secret projects, involving rocket trajectories, range tables for new anti-aircraft guns and calibrating minesweepers, according to Yale.
"She's probably one of the most important people during the war effort because she's the one who solved the implosion problem for the nuclear bomb," Beyer said.
Hopper left active duty in 1946, remaining in the Naval Reserve, when she was denied a commission, and left Harvard because the university would not grant her tenure. Instead, she went into private industry, according to Yale's release.
She was forced to leave the Reserve in 1966 because of her age, "the saddest day of my life," according to Yale's release. But, with the Vietnam War heating up, Hopper was recalled nine months later to help standardize the Navy's computer languages. Nicknamed "Amazing Grace," she remained on active duty for 19 years, retiring at age 79 as a rear admiral, the oldest officer in the U.S. military at the time.
Born in 1906, Hopper graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in 1928, then earned her master's degree in mathematics from Yale in 1930 and a doctorate in 1934 in mathematics and mathematical physics.
Throughout her career, she worked to make computers more user-friendly. She was quoted in Yale's release as saying, "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."
Hopper was in the first class inducted into the Computer Hall of Fame. "She's the Babe Ruth of the computer industry," Beyer said. So why isn't she better known outside the industry? Beyer offers three reasons: she was a woman, she had no children to carry on her legacy and "she didn't become a multi-billionaire."
But, because of Hopper, "there's now a separate industry from the hardware industry called the software industry," he said. "She is by far the most important person of the computer age."
A heavy drinker and smoker, according to Beyer, she was "awesome. She could take over a room. She was a firebrand." But she was a firebrand in the best sense. "She stuck up for herself; she protected other women," and hired many for her team.
In his book, Beyer quotes Hopper when she received the National Medal of Technology in 1991: "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."
Hopper died in 1992, working for Digital Equipment Corp. until 1991, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Call Ed Stannard at 203-680-9382.
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