Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age
Kurt W. Beyer
The MIT Press, 389 pp.
Kurt Beyer demands our attention when he writes that Grace Hopper "is unquestionably the most numerically popular computer pioneer on the web" (p. 1). Known as "Amazing Grace," or the "Grandmother of Cobol," her life is chronicled in Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age.
A woman of relative privilege, Hopper grew up in a prosperous northeastern household with accomplished parents who highly valued education. This affluence and parental expectation provided Hopper with the support she needed to become the first woman ever awarded a doctorate in mathematics from Yale University. This achievement was instrumental in her landing an academic position at Vassar, but her life changed dramatically the day Pearl Harbor was bombed and she enrolled in the US Navy. Hopper graduated as a midshipman in 1944, assuming a new a position that would take her into the hidden world of computing and introduce her to the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, or the Mark I. The Mark I was "8 feet high, 3 feet wide, 51 feet long, weighed 9,455 pounds and had 530 miles of wiring" (p. 37).
Not long after this introduction to Mark I, Hopper was moved with her machine to Harvard, where this coupling would signal the beginning of the computer age. This unique combination of brilliant mathematician and machine would create a revolution in the way we problem solve, communicate with others, and conduct business.
During wartime, Hopper was akin to Rosie the Riveter; a woman working in a man's world showcasing her manual dexterity, intellect, and leadership abilities. Perseverant, obstinate, intelligent, and hard working, she was part of a growing number of females engaged in the industrial work force, but she did not labor in a factory. Instead, she assumed a position in a new discipline that was being defined and developed during and after the war. Her affluence, high level of education, and mathematical abilities were in demand and provided her the tools she needed to enter the "elite male fraternity" (p. 5) of computer programmers.
Hopper is best known for the development of "a portable, common business language" that used basic English to communicate with machines. This program, known as the COmmon Business-Oriented Language, or COBOL, propelled computer programming into "the economic, political and social fabric of society" (p. 318)...