Around the Institute

Grace Hopper, Computing Pioneer

December 3, 2014  • Walter Isaacson

The men who invented computers focused primarily on the hardware. But the women who became involved during World War II saw early on the importance of programming. They developed ways to code the instructions that told the hardware what operations to perform. In this software lay the magic formulas that could transform the machines in wondrous ways.

The most colorful programming pioneer was a gutsy and spirited, yet also charming and collegial, naval officer named Grace Hopper, who ended up working for Harvard’s Howard Aiken, designer of the Mark I computer, and then for Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, creators of the general-purpose electronic digital computer. Born Grace Brewster Murray in 1906, she was from a prosperous family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her grandfather was a civil engineer who took her around New York on surveying trips, her mother was a mathematician, and her father was an insurance executive. She graduated from Vassar with a degree in math and physics, then went on to Yale, where in 1934 she earned her Ph.D. in math.

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