Women Mathematicians and NMAH Collections Grace Hopper: The Navy and Computers

Photo of Captain Grace Hopper, about 1975.
Captain Grace Hopper, ca 1975. Gift of Grace Hopper. (AHB2012q06025)

Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992) is probably the most well known American woman who has ever received a PhD in mathematics, having appeared on a segment of 60 Minutes, on the David Letterman Show, and as the grand marshal of the Orange Bowl Parade.

Grace Murray received a master’s degree from Yale in 1930 and then married Vincent Hopper. She continued her studies at Yale while her husband was teaching English at New York University and was awarded a PhD in 1934. She had started teaching at Vassar in 1931 and led a fairly typical life as a college mathematics teacher until World War II when she joined the US Naval Reserve.

Hopper began a long and extremely distinguished career in computers in early 1944 when she was commissioned a Lieutenant (junior grade) and began her first assignment working on the Mark I computer, formally known as the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, at the Cruft Research Laboratory at Harvard University.

Except for a short period of time in 1967, Hopper remained in the Naval Reserve until 1986. In 1949 she took a position as senior mathematician at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. There she developed the first English-language data processing language, FLOW-MATIC, for the UNIVAC I computer and became a vocal advocate for the standardization of computer languages. In 1967 then Commander Hopper was returned to active duty and in 1986, she was forced to retire from the navy. At the time of her retirement Hopper was 79 and held the rank of Rear Admiral (lower half). She was the oldest office on duty in the armed forces and, at her request, the retirement ceremony took place aboard the navy's oldest commissioned warship, the USS Constitution. Four years after her death a guided missile destroyer was christened the USS Hopper.

Grace Hopper and Cruft Research Lab colleagues in front of the Mark I during World War II.

Grace Hopper & Cruft Research Lab colleagues with Mark I during World War II. (96-3277)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Hopper was one of several women mathematicians interviewed for the Smithsonian’s Computer History Project. In 1972 she donated her papers and several items to the Smithsonian that relate to her work with computers. In 1985 other objects were collected by the museum.