With the most recent anniversary of her passing last week, I’m reminded of a memory of Grace Hopper (d: 1 January 1992, age: 82), who I admired and once had the chance to meet.
As the Internet bubbles, a fragment of information sometimes percolates to the top and reveals itself in a way that generates a thread of memories that can make you feel both lucky and a little sad.
We were not close, she was not my mentor. She was (and is) a part of my professional cultural history, a history I share with thousands of other military members in all of the services and millions of people in the technology fields. I feel not only lucky, but honored to have spent some time with her.
How often do you get to spend the day with a (no hyperbole) legend? I do not use the term legend lightly. She was so renowned in certain fields that everyone in those fields study her career. The best part of her legend was that the general public quite probably never heard of her or what she accomplished, yet her career and her work has affected almost every single person alive today.
A day with Grace Hopper
As a young Army captain I was stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Fort Huachuca’s claims to fame is that it was the home of the buffalo soldier, somehow involved with the pursuit of Pancho Villa, and was home to the US Army Information Systems Command (USAISC), now the US Army Information Systems Engineering Command.
I was assigned to escort some Navy admiral as part of an additional duty supporting a professional conference of contractors and Army communicators. I had a name, rank, flight number, arrival time, and that was really all.
I was early. This was still back in the day of the airport honor system, so I was able to head down to the gate to wait for the admiral. The airplane was on time. I scanned the disembarking passengers looking for my guest. As the crowd peeled away to leave toward baggage claim, it revealed a tiny, older woman in a dark business suit and hat. At least to my Army eyes, it look like a business suit. She seemed too old to fit my expectation of 45-55 year old flag officer. I disregarded her and she was quickly lost in the crowd.
It took a minute for my mind to register. The lady’s business suit had strange piping on the sleeves and, on closer reflection, she wore a hat that looked like military headgear.
Now I had to hustle through the crowd to catch up to her. Her height was working against me.
The career highlights
At the time I met Rear Admiral (RADM) Hopper, she was in her late 70s. She had (I later learned) already retired from the Navy twice and had returned to active duty for the third time:
- 1st 1943 – 1966 (23 years)
- 2nd 1967 – 1971 (4 years)
- 3rd 1972 – 1986 (14 years)
I won’t go into the details of her career, Wikipedia can do it much better. She is world renown for three things:
- First, she was one of the original three programmers assigned to the Mark I computer staff headed by Howard H. Aiken. The Mark I is most famous for running calculations contributing to the design work of the Manhattan project. (For those nerds out there, implosion design won over the gun design to initiate critical mass.)
- Second, she developed the first operational compiler which allowed programmers to use an English language to program instead of the 1s and 0s of machine code. Fundamentally, every programming language you ever heard of is based on her work.
- Third, she is credited with bringing the word “debugging” into the modern automation lexicon. The term “bug” has existed since the 1800s as an engineering term for inexplicable problems.
“While she was working on a Mark II Computer at a US Navy research lab in Dahlgren, Virginia in 1947, her associates discovered a moth stuck in a relay and thereby impeding operation, whereupon she remarked that they were “debugging” the system.”
Her career as a stewardess.
Grace’s charm (not that I ever called her Grace, she was pretty much “ma’am” the whole time) was that by the time we met, she was starting her fourth decade of military service. Forty years will give you a lot of perspective and few unexpected surprises. She was very professional. As a public speaker and PR ambassador for the Navy, she was, funny, very open, and approachable.
I had to find RADM Hopper in the crowd after she passed me near the gate. After the introductions, we set off to collect her luggage.
I apologized for not recognizing immediately her uniform and, therefore, her. She said that it had happened before. She said that because of her uniform, age, and gender, people often confused her with other airport staff and personnel. Their first guess was never that she was an active duty, senior naval officer, much less an admiral.
She said she was often mistaken for a flight attendant, then asked for assistance or information both before and during the flights.
Civilian pilots and other travelers have mistaken her for a porter and she has been asked to grab their bags. “Look at me, do I look like a porter?” (Wise young captain that I was, no comment.) She said she stopped helping when she realized they were bad tippers. I’m pretty sure she was pulling my leg there.
She claimed one man refused to board the plane because he thought she was the plane’s pilot. He said she was too old to be a pilot and took a later flight. My leg-pulling-o-meter was inconclusive because I could totally picture the conversation. I file that story under if it wasn’t true, it ought to been true.
Grace Hopper was a treasure trove of stories and information. As such, she was widely sought as a speaker. At the briefing she gave at Fort Huachuca, she introduced her most famous visual aid: the nanosecond, a 30 centimeter long piece of wire. She explained the wire represented the distance a signal (or light) would travel in 1 nanosecond. A beautiful representation of a complicated concept. Light speed in the palm of your hand.
In perfect Geek style, she further explained that the distance the wire more accurately represented was how fast signals would travel in a vacuum. In the wire, the signal would travel much slower. At the end of her lectures, everyone was given a nanosecond.
Her other visuals:
- Microsecond = 300 meters (about 1000 ft.) of cable
- Nano-minute = 18 meters (about 60 ft.) of wire
- Picosecond = pepper
My story is not particularly special. I was one of 10s of thousands of people Grace Hopper touched with her lectures and thrilled with her stories. She did not just witness history, she made history that ultimately affected everyone in the world.
I was very lucky to meet her, spend time with her, and share in a personal conversation.
The term innovator is overused in industry. Grace Hopper was an innovator. She disrupted some industries and was probably the pioneer for several other industries.
Her memory is a tribute to determination, hard work, and innovation. She was probably one of the first science and technology communicator I ever saw in person and she was inspirational.
She would not have remembered me, but I’ll never forget her.
(Update 25 August 2015: a great article from Joyce Riha Linik: http://iq.intel.com/how-grace-hoppers-career-cracked-the-code-for-women-in-science/?sr_source=lift_zemanta&utm_term=z194040outbrain1z&_z1_msid=outbrain&_z1_adgid=990&_z1_caid=94040