GRACE MURRAY HOPPER - NAE election, 1973


NAE election, 1973; citation: “Pioneering work in development of computer languages and automatic programming.”

Grace Murray Hopper wrote the first implemented compiler—a term she coined—and in a 1953 paper described fundamental ideas of compiling, a concept that directly contributed to today’s ubiquitous use of computers. She led the US Navy into the digital age and was instrumental in the development of a modern programming language.


Adamant about serving her country after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she enlisted in the US Naval Reserve (at 35 she was deemed too old for active duty). In 1944 she was commissioned a lieutenant (junior grade) and ordered to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, where she began work on the first large digital computer, the Mark I. Five years later she went to work as a senior mathematician involved in building the first UNIVAC.

In 1959 she was one of six people who recommended that the Department of Defense consider the development of specifications for what became COBOL, Common Business-Oriented Language. She was a technical advisor to the resulting Committee on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL), and her programming language Flow-Matic was a major input to COBOL.

In 1967 she was recalled to active duty in the US Naval Reserve to help develop a standard for the Navy’s many computer languages. In 1983 President Ronald Reagan made a special presidential appointment of Hopper to commodore. In 1986, at age 79, she retired from active duty, aboard the USS Constitution—the oldest naval officer on active duty aboard the oldest warship in commission. For the occasion, CBS rebroadcast its 1983 60 Minutes show about her.


Among her honors and awards, she received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit. In 1973 she was the first American and the first woman of any nationality to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. In 1991 she was recognized with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, “For her pioneering accomplishments in the development of computer programming languages that simplified computer technology and opened the door to a significantly larger universe of users,” awarded by President George H.W. Bush. In 2016 she was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.


One of her maxims was “We manage things. We lead people.” The phrase she disliked most was “We’ve always done it that way.” She enjoyed interacting with young people and encouraged them, “Go ahead and do it. You can always apologize later if need be.’’

To disprove that there was only one way to do things, in her office she had a clock that ran counterclockwise—and kept perfect time.

In 1930 she married Vincent Foster Hopper. They had no children and divorced in 1945.

Education: BA in mathematics and physics, Vassar College, 1928, Phi Beta Kappa; MA in math and physics (1930) and PhD in math (1934), both from Yale University, Sigma Xi.