From The OCLC Newsletter, March/April, 1987, No. 167 (Editor and article author is Philip Schieber.)

The Wit and Wisdom of Grace Hopper

"Life was simple before World War II. After that, we had systems."

That observation comes from one who was present at the creation of the age of systems -- Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (US Navy, Retired), who spoke on the campus of the Ohio State University, Columbus, on Feb. 5, 1987, as part of a year-long celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the formation of the Department of Computer and Information Science.

Introduced as the "third programmer on the first computer in the United States," Admiral Hopper spoke on the "Future of Computers, Hardware, Software, and People." She regaled her audience of more than 1000 persons with stories and pithy observations about the computer age.

72 Words of Storage

Grace Hopper is known worldwide for her work with the first large-scale digital computer, the Mark I. "It was 51 feet long, eight feet high, eight feet deep," she said. "And it had 72 words of storage and could perform three additions a second."

Admiral Hopper reported for active duty with the Navy in July 1944. She was a 37-year-old reservist who had a doctorate in mathematics from Yale and had been teaching at Vassar for ten years. As a Lieutenant (J.G.) Grace Hopper began her work computing with Howard Aiken at Harvard. They used the first computer to figure ordnance calculations. After the war, she was discharged from the Navy, but she stayed with computers at Harvard and worked on the Navy's Mark II and III. In 1949 she joined Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, which was building UNIVAC I and which was eventually to become Sperry-Univac. She retired from that company in 1971.

"I seem to do a lot of retiring," said Admiral Hopper, who was born in 1906. She noted that she was first told she was "too old" for something forty years ago, when she retired from the Navy for the first time. In 1967 she was recalled to active duty with the Navy, and when she retired again from the Navy in August 1986, she was the nation's oldest active duty officer.

In her 40 years in computing, Admiral Hopper made important contributions to the field that developed "the machine that assisted the power of the brain rather than muscle."

First Debugging

In 1951 she discovered the first computer "bug." It was a real moth, which she pasted into the UNIVAC I logbook. In 1952 she had an 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." Admiral Hopper is also the "progenitor" of COBOL, which she was working on in 1955. In 1967, she was recalled to the Navy and served with the Naval Data Automation Command until she retired. Her mission was to preside over the Navy's efforts to maintain uniformity in computer languages. In 1983 she earned a special Presidential appointment to flag rank as admiral. She is now a consultant for Digital Equipment Corporation.

Herewith a sampling of Admiral Hopper's salty observations.

On the building of bigger computers: "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, but for more systems of computers."

On change: "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."

On calculating the value of information: "A business' accounts receivable file is much more important than its accounts payable file."

On information and knowledge: "We're flooding people with information. We need to feed it through a processor. A human must turn information into intelligence or knowledge. We've tended to forget that no computer will ever ask a new question."

On advice to the young (whom she defines as "anybody half my age"): "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."