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Inspirational Women in Tech: Pioneers of the Past, Pt. 2

While the tech industry has historically been dominated by men, many women have overcome gender stereotypes and challenges to make significant contributions to the

industry. Last week, we looked at Ada Lovelace and today, we look at another inspirational woman who advanced and shaped the tech industry into what it is today.

Grace Hopper was born in New York on December 9th, 1906, the oldest of three children. She was a very curious child: when she was seven, she was so determined to figure out how an alarm clock worked that she took apart seven of them before her mother found out. Hopper went to Vassar College at age 17 and eventually went to Yale University where she earned her master’s degree in 1930 and her PhD in 1934. After that, she taught math at Vassar until the U.S. entered World War II.

In 1941, Hopper tried to enlist in the Navy. She was turned down because she was too old (she was 34), too small (15 pounds below the minimum weight), and her position teaching math was too important to the war effort. Hopper did not give up, however, and in 1943 she got a Leave of Absence from Vassar and was sworn into the United States Naval Reserve where she volunteered to serve in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). In the Naval Reserve, Hopper worked on Mark 1 and Mark 2, the first large-scale automatic calculators. During this time, it is rumored that Hopper coined the popular terms “bug” and “debug” when she found a moth in one of the panels which had been malfunctioning and taped it in her logbook, writing, “First actual case of bug being found.”

In 1949, Hopper joined Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. There, she designed the first compiler which translated mathematical notation into machine code. Her work there also required her to write all programs in octal code, which was tedious and dull and prone to mistakes. To address this problem, Hopper believed that a programming language should be created that could use entirely English words that computers could later translate into machine code. Her idea was not accepted for two years, but eventually, her company had to admit that it worked and in the early 1950s, her division developed Flow-Matic, the first English-language data-processing compiler. Her work inspired COBOL, one of the first widely used high-level computer programming languages.

In 1966, Hopper retired from the Navy, but she was recalled the following year to help standardize the Navy’s computer languages. She was promoted to commodore in 1983 and rear admiral in 1985. Hopper was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper both overcame gender stereotypes and societal norms, reshaping the tech industry through their work in Computer Science. They serve as powerful reminders of the talent, creativity, and innovation that women can and have brought to the tech industry throughout history, and their legacies inspire and remind us of the limitless possibilities that young girls and women can achieve in tech.

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