Who was Grace Hopper?

by Black Hat Middle East and Africa
Who was Grace Hopper?

Have you heard of Grace Hopper? 

And if not: have you ever called an error in a computer program a ‘bug’? 

Because if you have, then you may not have heard of Grace Hopper, but you’re continuing her legacy in your cyber language. 

A pioneer in computer science

Born in New York, USA, Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was a naval officer and a computer science pioneer. With a masters degree and a PhD in mathematics, earned from Yale University in 1930 and 1934 respectively, she was an outlier of her time – a woman breaking new ground in the male-dominated world of STEM. 

And she made a number of important contributions to software development and computer programming, including playing an influential role in the design and implementation of programming languages. 

  • She explored novel ways to use computer code and pioneered the idea of automatic programming
  • In 1952 she developed the first compiler. It was called A-0, and it could translate mathematical code in code that could be read by a machine.
  • Then in 1953 she proposed an idea: that programs could be written in words instead of symbols. She was told it wouldn’t work – but she set to work on an English-language compiler anyway, and by 1956 FLOW-MATIC was in operation: the first programming language that used word commands. 

Hopper’s work to create these word-based code languages was hugely influential in making computer science – and computers in general – accessible to more people. Suddenly, the potential existed for anyone (even without a background in mathematics) to understand and benefit from computer technology. And for the technology industry, this meant that computer tech could be marketed to the public, not just to organisations with the talent and resources to use them. 

Hopper’s goal was to make people feel comfortable using computers. As she said in a 1980 interview with Angeline Pantages for the Computer History Museum: 

“What I was after in beginning English language [programming] was to bring another whole group of people able to use the computer easily…I kept calling for more user-friendly languages. Most of the stuff we get from academicians, computer science people, is in no way adapted to people.” 

We told a little lie

OK, so Hopper wasn’t actually the first person to use the term ‘bug’. That’s thought to be Thomas Edison, who said there was a bug in one of his telephone designs. But she was the first person to record a bug that was found in a computer system, and the first to attach that term to that issue. 

Hopper’s bug discovery is marked on September 9th each year, on ‘Tester’s Day’ – a reminder that software testing is a critical practice in the tech industry. 

But bugs aside, Hopper’s language processing work enabled new generations of computer users and cybersecurity professionals to embrace the power of computing technology. So – thanks, Grace.

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