Farewell, Adm. Hopper

FCW@20 celebrates the life of computer pioneer Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper

The federal information technology community lost an important figure in 1992, when Navy computer pioneer Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper died at age 85. Federal Computer Week reporter Richard A. Danca wrote on Jan. 13, 1992, about the Hopper he knew briefly near the end of her remarkable life.

The computer industry will be a little less interesting this year: Computer pioneer Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper died on New Year’s Day, less than a month after her 85th birthday.

Hopper was active until about 18 months ago in the latest of her many careers, serving as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corp. She had joined that company in 1986, not long after retiring as the Navy’s oldest officer on active duty.

Her Navy career began in 1943, when she left her position as a math teacher at Vassar College. For the Bureau of Ordnance Computation at Harvard University, then-Lt. Hopper was one of the programmers for the first large-scale digital computer, the Mark I.

Although she left the Navy in 1946, she remained a faculty member at Harvard’s computation laboratory and was an active-duty Navy Reservist until 1966.

Within a year of that retirement, however, the Navy brought Hopper back to full-time active duty, and she soon advanced to flag rank. At the Naval Data Automation Command in Washington, D.C., she worked on computer language techniques. Everyone remembers her as the discoverer of the first computer bug — a moth, actually — caught in the Mark I’s electromechanical relays.

But one reporter’s first memory of Hopper is of a small, wizened woman in a naval officer’s uniform, who sat by herself finishing dinner at a San Diego hotel coffee shop and smoking unfiltered cigarettes. Even at 80-plus, she gave off an aura of power. Clearly everyone who walked by recognized her, yet almost no one dared disturb her.

A year or so later, when a young man offered to help her with her coat, she reacted as if he were trying to steal it. And she didn’t want any damned chair either. Just find the man from Digital she had come to see. Right now!  Was she even wearing a uniform? Even if she weren’t, it was difficult not to think about clicking heels, saluting and saying, “Aye-aye, ma’am.”

The last time that reporter saw Hopper was about six months before her death. Speaking at a meeting of the Ada community, Hopper was every bit the feisty old salt she was supposed to be, even if she had to deliver her speech from her chair.
In true Navy-blue fashion, Hopper rarely resisted a chance to use her standard keynote speech as a platform for taking a shot at the Air Force, or at least its position in government computing.

Hopper may have been one of the few living Navy officers ever to have a museum. The museum, a small room at the San Diego Naval Regional Data Automation Center, contains artifacts, awards and citations that Hopper received during her lengthy career. The museum also has a guest book signed by scores of visitors, including some major computing figures who stopped to pay homage.

Her awards included the National Medal of Technology, awarded last September by President George H. W. Bush. She also received the first computer sciences “man of the year” award from the Data Processing Management Association.

Hopper was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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