Math, Moths, and Mirrors

Celebrating Women in Science: Grace Hopper

Where to start? While exploring the complex life story of Grace Hopper, the renowned mathematician who inspired the name of our organization, I was not quite sure where to begin her story. I found myself captivated by the many layers of “Amazing Grace’s” past, and all her contributions to advances in computing. And I kept stumbling upon many similarities in the way she embraced her passion for discovery that align with our very own Hopper values. So here are four lessons, from the intriguing life of Grace Hopper, told through the lens of our Hopper pillars of innovation: Curiosity, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.

1. Curiosity

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, “We’ve always done it this way.” I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.” – Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper was born in New York City in 1906. The abovementioned quote is one of her most famous statements, a declaration of her investigative and non-conformist nature. Accordingly, Grace’s childhood was heavily influenced by her spirit of inquiry. For example, at age seven, she became fascinated with machines and their intricate mechanical layers. One day,  she decided to take apart alarm clocks all over her house just to understand how they work. Grace was fortunate that her mother, an avid lover of mathematics, was forgiving of her exploratory trials. In fact, her mother encouraged Grace to examine her environment. And both parents believed that Grace and her sister should enjoy a high quality education – just like her brother.

The legacy of Grace’s empowered upbringing, and her curious nature, encouraged her to study math and physics at Vassar College in the late 1920’s. Upon graduation, Grace pursued a master’s degree and Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University in the 1930’s. She was one of the first women, worldwide, to earn such a doctorate degree – a qualification, that enabled her to teach mathematics at Vassar College until 1943. Grace was known for supporting curious, out-of-the-box thinking in her classrooms. As a result, her students were often confident learners.

At The Hopper, we embrace curiosity as the ultimate empowerment tool. We invite families to ask questions, make observations, and to team up to design and solve problems together. Which brings us to our next innovation value.

2. Critical Thinking  

Grace decided to join the Navy during World War II. At age 34, she was considered too old, and not heavy enough for her height, to successfully enlist.  Despite being told that she couldn’t become a member of the Navy, she managed to persuade the Naval Reserve to let her train to become a commissioned Lieutenant and to get assigned to the “Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at the Cruft Laboratories” at Harvard University in 1944. This is where she met and collaborated with Howard Aiken, a fellow pioneer designer of early computers.

Together, alongside a small team, Grace was working on the Mark I computer, creating the first version of a computer language compiler (a compiler renders worded instructions into code that can be read by computers). Grace was captivated by the Mark I: For her it was an attractive gadget, similar to the alarm clocks of her youth; she could hardly wait to disassemble it and figure it out.”

Grace became the third person to program the Mark I. Throughout this project she kept deconstructing hardware, theories, and tested different programming schemata for the compiler. Her persistence, and ability to think critically, paid off. This mindset – to experiment, to analyze results, and to eventually discover new solutions – is at the core of The Hopper’s programming ethos. We want families to feel confident and comfortable taking risks. And we want them to share their discoveries with the world.

3. Collaboration

After World War II, Grace remained with the Navy as a reserve officer. She also continued her computing research at Harvard, in a Fellow capacity, where she helped lead a team of computer scientists. On their journey to create the first fully functional computer language compiler, Grace and her team ended up working on the Mark II. During this process, Grace became accustomed to innovative troubleshooting, including an incident with a moth that made computer science history:

It was warm in the summer of 1945; the windows were always open and the screens were not very good. One day the Mark II stopped when a relay failed. They finally found the cause of the failure: inside one of the relays, beaten to death by the contacts, was a moth. The operator carefully fished it out with tweezers, taped it in the logbook, and wrote under it “first actual bug found.”

This incident is credited for the invention of the term “computer bug”. Additional historic accounts elaborate on Grace’s vital role as a team member:

“Machine problems, called bugs, were very often caused by fraying of the brushes on the counters, which caused them to spark. When this happened, the operators would go to Hopper and borrow the little mirror from the handbag she always had with her. Then they turned the lights off and held the mirror down into the machinery to locate where the counters were sparking.”

By 1952, Grace and her team had developed the popular COBOL language, a fully operational compiler. “Nobody believed that,” she said. “I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. They told me computers could only do arithmetic.” Notwithstanding initial skepticism toward the compiler, Grace continued her advocacy for computers as remarkable tools for mathematicians, and she encouraged  the long term adaptation of COBOL.

Grace could not have accomplished this computer science milestone alone. Her  ability to be a team player, her perseverance, and public advocacy reminds us that our greatest discoveries don’t happen in solitary spaces. It is our ability to engage with each other to build a collective experience with those around us – your sister, grandfather, a parent, a best friend, a colleague or a friendly stranger – that enable meaningful connections that last and can better the communities we live in. 

4. Creativity

Grace Hopper was a master creative thinker which allowed her to launch novel computing inventions that shaped the future direction of the world we live in. Creativity, in the context of science learning, plays a vital role in how we approach problems and how we generate new ideas.

A lifelong learner and discoverer, Grace remained committed to her math and computing passion. She attempted to retire from her Navy life in 1966, but she was quickly recalled to active duty – at the age of 60 – to address different issues around standardization of communication between different computer languages. This process kept her tied to the Navy for another 19 years. When Grace finally retired at age 79, in 1986, she was a rear admiral and the oldest serving officer in the service. She was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991, among many other honorary awards, becoming the first female individual recipient of the honor. At the age of 85, she died in Arlington, Virginia, in 1992.

Looking back upon Grace Hopper’s life, there are many reasons why we chose to name our organization after such an inspirational figure. An iconic female leader, whose computer pioneer work, that spanned a half century,  helped America stay on the leading edge of high technology and data processing; her curious nature that gave her the courage to dissect sophisticated machines and many alarm clocks; or Grace’s positive impact on her fellow colleagues, students, and the general public. The sources of awe are countless when exploring the story of  this true innovator and change maker.

But what inspires me most about Grace’s legacy is her openness to try out new things. She used to say, “the most dangerous phrase in the language is we’ve always done’”. As the world is facing increasingly complex challenges, we need more inquisitive minds that are willing to step outside their comfort zones. We can’t wait to launch The Hopper, for that very reason: to become a home base for the next generation of fearless leaders and problem solvers who are not afraid to challenge the norm.

Author:

Vanessa Schatz

Vanessa Schatz

Vanessa is The Hopper's COO and an award-winning communications specialist.

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