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Tribute to Grace Hopper, How Long Is a Nanosecond?

Mar 13, 2015 3:56:00 PM / by Jeff Knepper

Gary Stern, President of Canary Labs and our most experienced engineer, had the opportunity to be an intern for Grace Hopper in the summer of 1976. He wrote code for mini-computers which were "cheaper" at that time, around $200,000 rather than a $1 million for a regular computer. The mini-computer was the size of a single equipment rack. Gary worked on a COBOL compiler for these mini computers.

Grace was a forward thinker and claimed that mini-computers would be short-term. She had already moved on to microcomputers and networking. This was something that was 10 years ahead of us. Grace knew that things needed to get smaller and faster. That summer I valued getting to know Grace and it opened many doors for me in the future.Gary Stern

Grace Murray Hopper was born on December 9, 1906. Grace became a very important part of the computer industry and had many accomplishments due to her uncommon way of thinking.

Grace completed a degree in mathematics at Vassar College and became a college professor, but continued to study at Yale. She later earned a PhD in mathematics and was one of the very few women to obtain that accomplishment.

When World War II came around, Grace felt compelled to join the military. Specifically the Navy because it had been the branch that her grandfather served in. Because of Grace's mathematical background, she was assigned to program the first computer in the United States, the Mark I. Even after the war, when she continued in the Navy, she was assigned to work with the Mark II and Mark III computers. In 1952, Grace helped create the first compiler which led to a common language for computers to understand, called COBOL. This language is still used today.

Hopper retired from the service in 1966, but was recalled to active duty because of her pioneering computer experience. Grace worked another 19 years, but then retired again as a rear admiral and was the oldest serving officer.

"Google Doodle" Image for Grace's 107th Birthday

Grace popularized the term "bug" and "debugging". A moth had been smashed in the electromechanical relay in the Mark II machine. When the bug was found, it was taken out and taped to the log book, written beside it, "first actual case of a bug being found".

Making terms easily understood was something Grace found highly important. She wanted a concrete way for others to understand how fast a nanosecond (a billionth of a second) was. The maximum speed that electricity can travel in a billionth of a second is almost 1 foot, 11.8 inches to be exact. When an admiral would complain that it took long to send a message by satellite, Grace would explain that there were a very large amount of nanoseconds between that place and the satellite. Although Grace Murray Hopper died in 1992, she is still an inspiration to many women in computing. She was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

While working in the Pentagon, Grace would have office workers call her when there was open time on their mainframe. Grace thought there were so many things wasted in the Pentagon, so she told us to find stuff that wasn't being used. - Gary Stern

Something that Gary found odd while working for Grace was the type of questions that she would ask,

She wouldn't ask how a project was going. She would ask how you were doing followed by, "have you done a crossword puzzle today?" I don't think that I had ever done a crossword puzzle before in my life until I started working for Grace. A bunch of us would all work on a crossword puzzle together with Grace at lunch. - Gary Stern

He never knew why the crossword puzzles were so important to her. That goes to show that Grace was one-of-a-kind, she had a unique and rare mind.

People have an enormous tendency to resist change. They love to say, "We've always done it this way." I try to fight that.Grace Murray Hopper

Topics: Life

Jeff Knepper

Written by Jeff Knepper