September 9th, 1945 a team of computer technicians, led by Grace Hopper, took off Panel-F from their super computer and found in Relay-70 something very unusual. A moth, which was removed and pasted into their log book. Grace Hopper wrote the caption under the bug “First actual case of bug being found”. Hopper went on to say, “From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had a bug in it.”
Born in 1906, Grace Hopper was denied enlistment into the Navy being told she was too old and being below the 120 pound minimum weight standard at the time. She didn’t let that stop her, she took leave from Vasser college where she was teaching mathematics and with a weight waiver in hand (she was 105 pounds) was sworn into the Navy Reserves.
While in initial training at the Midshipman’s School in Northampton, Massachusetts it didn’t take long for the cadre to see her potential. After graduating first in her class, Lieutenant Hopper was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard. While there, she worked on programming projects that led her to coauthoring three papers and being offered full professorships at multiple universities.
Later as a senior mathematician, Hopper made a recommendation that was rejected and scorned. Her request was to make a programming language easy to understand and entirely in English. She was told that, “computers didn’t understand English”. It was three years later before the idea started to catch hold and in the early 1950’s Hopper had the first operational compiler, she said “Nobody believed that..I had a running compiler and nobody wanted to touch it. They told me computers could only do arithmetic”.
In 1959 at a gathering of industry and government, a new language named COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), an extension from Hoppers FLOW-MATIC language she had devised years earlier, was defined. Hopper said that she created the compiler because she was lazy and it was in hopes “the programmer may return to being a mathematician”.
“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”-Grace Hopper
Admiral Hopper is a great example of leaning into discomfort, breaking boundaries, and finding passion in our day-to-day endeavors. Known for her contributions in programming and computer science, she also added much to the discussion on leadership vs management and innovation. Some favorite quotes by Hopper:
- A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for
- You don’t manage people; you manage things. You lead people
- We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership. It might help if we ran the MBAs out of Washington
- In pioneer days they used oxen for heavy pulling, and when one ox couldn’t budge a log, they didn’t try to grow a larger ox. We shouldn’t be trying for bigger computers…
Let us learn from Admiral Grace Hopper that boundaries are created in our own minds. We can change the world around us, but first we must fight off the perceptions that often accompany that change. If in work, relationships, or our minds we hear, ‘We’ve always done it that way’, Hopper says to fight those thoughts, “that’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise”.
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