Science history: The first de-bugger


Grace Hopper discovered the computer bug – which was, literally, a bug. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


A tribute to Grace Hopper, created by the Military Officers' Association of America.

A tribute to Grace Hopper, created by the Military Officers' Association of America.

MOAA

In 1969 the US Data Processing Management Association instituted a new award, the computer science man of the year. Its first winner? A 63-year-old woman from New York named Grace Hopper.

Among her achievements include being possibly the first person to attribute a malfunctioning computer to having a “bug” in its system.

Grace Murray Hopper, born December 9, 1906, tried to enlist in the United States Navy after the US had entered the Second World War, but at 34 was deemed too old. However, in in 1943 she was allowed to join the US Navy Reserve.

It wasn’t that Hopper lacked qualifications: she’d graduated with high distinction from the prestigious Vassar College in 1928 with a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics; and she earned a master's degree in 1930, then a PhD in mathematics from Yale in 1934.

She went on to contribute to some of the most momentous developments in computer technology, and was often called the “first lady of software”.

Beginning in 1937, Harvard University graduate student Howard Aitken was working on a machine that could solve advanced mathematical physics problems. Aiken envisioned using modified, commercially available technologies coordinated by a central control system.

Supported by Harvard and IBM, which was known for its calculating machines and punch-card systems, the Aitkin team developed the Mark I computer. With the US embroiled in World War II, Navy recruit Grace Hopper was assigned to the project.

She became one of the four original “coders”, the first computer programmers.

According to the History of Computers website, by August 1944 the Mark I was in full operation. The machine worked by means of holes punched into paper tape. One day, as it was running, all operations suddenly stopped. The story goes that Hopper found the first computer "bug": a moth had got into the machine and its smashed body was blocking holes in the paper tape. Hopper is credited with coining the word "debugging" to describe the work to eliminate program faults.

In 1949 she went to work for the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, which was developing the next generations of computers, first the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, followed in the early 1950s by the Universal Automatic Computer, or UNIVAC.

Her revolutionary contribution was the idea of automatic programming.

In 1952, according to Hopper’s biography produced by Yale, she developed the first compiler, called A-0, which translated mathematical code into machine-readable code, an important step towards creating modern programming languages.

In 1953 she proposed the idea of writing programs in words, rather than symbols, and by 1956 her team had produced FLOW-MATIC, “the first programming language to use word commands”.

“Hopper’s project of creating word-based languages helped expand the community of computer users. By developing programs that used word commands rather than symbols, Hopper believed that more people would feel comfortable using computers.”

In 1959, Hopper took a leading part in the Conference on Data Systems Languages, aiming to develop a common business computer language that could be used across industries and sectors. The finished product was COBOL, short for “common business-oriented language”.

By the 1970s, COBOL was the most extensively used computer language in the world.

When she retired from the Navy, in 1986, at age 79, she held the rank of rear admiral and was the oldest serving officer in the service. Her colleagues called her “amazing Grace”.

She died in Berkeley, California, on January 1, 1992, aged 85, and was buried with full military honours in Arlington National Cemetery.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://www.famousscientists.org/grace-murray-hopper/
  2. https://thejournal.com/articles/2016/11/17/polymath-physicist-first-lady-of-software-awarded-presidential-medal-of-freedom.aspx
  3. http://sites.harvard.edu/~chsi/markone/about.html
  4. http://sites.harvard.edu/~chsi/markone/crew.html
  5. http://history-computer.com/ModernComputer/Relays/Aiken.html
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