Revisiting Amazing Grace

When following up on a recent online flap about women’s contributions to technology, I came across an image of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper atop a Boing Boing blog post. It all made me remember I had a biography of Grace Hopper in my reading queue (otherwise known as that pile of books by the couch) that I’d been meaning to get to. As Internet flaps go, this one turned out to be quite inspiring.

The book is Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age by Kurt W. Beyer. It came out in paperback earlier this year from MIT Press and can be found online and in bookstores for less than $17. The book explores Grace Hopper’s life and how she fit into the pioneering days of computing in the United States. Her work is said to have laid the foundation for the programming profession.

The book lightly touches on her early days as a mathematics student — and later professor at Vassar College after she completed her doctorate at Yale University — but kicks in when World War II is in full swing and Hopper joins the Navy to do her part. Hopper was one of many female mathematicians who joined the war effort; the film Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II covers the women programmers working for the Army and it’s available on Netflix. (And let’s not forget the actress Hedy Lamarr’s work in spread spectrum technology — the subject of the 2011 book, Hedy’s Folly, that also generated a nice NPR story.)

Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age covers her early days coding and calculating high-level math problems for the military on a 9,000-pound computer. After the war ended, she went to do even more for the infant industry, including writing compilers, working on the UNIVAC computer and developing the COBOL programming language.

While the book notes her accomplishments and sticks mostly with primary sources and documentation, it’s more history than biography. It drills down into how these early calculating machines functioned, whether or not Grace Hopper was involved directly or not — but does discuss that little story about a certain moth.

For those interested in the evolution of modern computing, Beyer’s book is an educational read. While it may skimp on an abundance of personal details concerning its human subject, it distills the Hopperian philosophy to “maintain a youthful creative outlet by constantly broadening one’s knowledge base,” as this sort of thing lets you approach problems from different angles. It’s a good lesson to learn. (Her famous quote “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission,” is also a good one to remember for certain situations when you just really need to get something done.)

If you’re looking for a more personal biography, try Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea by Kathleen Broome Williams and published by the Naval Institute Press. It’s less overall techie history, and more focused on the actual life of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. A short biographical bit on 60 Minutes in 1983 shows her in action as well.

Grace Hopper passed on in 1992, but she and her work live on in many forms (yes, nerds, including t-shirts). This year, the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference is being held October 3-6 in Baltimore. And if you have 10 minutes, be sure to check out her appearance on David Letterman’s show back in the 1980s. It’s a hoot.

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