Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Grace Hopper: Computer pioneer

I think about Grace Hopper every time I introduce the term 'debugging' to pupils. The story goes that Grace Hopper had a problem with her computer program and found that the culprit was a Moth or 'bug' in the workings of the computer. It's a great anecdote to tell children. It helps them make sense of the term debugging and it introduces them to a great character from the history of computing.

Grace Murray Hopper was in the US Navy and eventually became a Rear Admiral. She worked on the Harvard Mark I, a very early US computer. She was a real character and made major contributions to the field of computer science.

'Amazing Grace' was born on December 9th, 1906 so we're publishing this article on her birthday.

Hopper believed that it should be easier to program computers. She was instrumental in the development of COBOL a computer programming language that read like English. Instead of making humans write code in a way that is convenient for computers, COBOL was a step towards making computers understand a language that is convenient for humans.

This is a useful video to share with children to give an overview of Hopper's life and contribution to computer science:

Hopper had a knack for explaining technical concepts. She's famous for her use of  'nanoseconds' - pieces of wire that showed the distance light or electricity could travel in a nanosecond. She used these to explain why computing took so long and why it was important for programmers to be efficient and not waste nanoseconds.

If you want to see Hopper in action, this video is fantastic. It really conveys her humour and determination. Watch it first before sharing with children as there is a little salty language! (Well she was in the Navy.)

"It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission."
Hopper is also credited with coming up with what I've found to be a most useful maxim on many occasions: "It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission." It's not certain that Hopper was the first to use the phrase but she certainly popularised it. 

Children's Books about Grace Hopper

I think we're due a new book about Grace Hopper for children, hopefully someone is working on it.

But there are some books that tell her story:

Girls Think of Everything by Catherine Thimmesh is a fab book that includes profiles of lots of interesting female inventors.

Grace Murray Hopper is one of the women included in the book. Kids should definitely be exposed to stories like this to make women's contributions more visible. 
There are also some older out of print books for a younger audience such as Grace Hopper: The First Woman to Program the First Computer in the United States by Christy Marx.

There are used copies of this book around so it's worth looking out for if you want to share Hopper's story with your kids.

For older teenagers and parents there's Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Invention Age, a biography by Kurt W Beyer.

This books gets beyond the anecdotes and public persona of Hopper's later years and takes a detailed look at her life and contribution.

Image credit: Public domain / Wikipedia

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