Grace Hopper portrait photo

Grace Hopper and the invention of the information age.

Grace Hopper and the invention of the information age. Kurt Beyer. The MIT Press. Cambridge Massachusetts. 2009.

Growing up around computers in the early 1990s I never heard of Grace Hopper. Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Bjorn Strossoup. I heard of those guys but the story of Grace Hopper is incredible and at least at the time was not talked about.

This book should be part of every computer science 101 course in colleges or high schools. At the same time the Eniac, arguably one of the most famous computers ever, was calculating ballistic firing tables Grace Hopper and her commander Howard Aiken with his machine the Mark I, during the war helped calculate solutions for the first atomic bomb. Beyond that they did many other tasks, all the Eniac could do was calculate firing tables. Not only is the story of Grace Hopper important for the history of computing, other females who kicked serious computing butt are highlighted throughout the book. Jean Bartik , Betty Snyder, and Kay McNulty. These women revolutionized programming.

  • If/then blocks
  • Debugger
  • Problem oriented languages
  • Compiler
  • COBOL

Reading the book leaves one in awe of what was done in the early years of computers from the Eniac and Mark I being enormous in size and almost being entirely mechanical. The early technical feats of using magnetic tape storage, mercury delay lines as a type of memory, magnetic disk arrays, and the first RAM. The mental hurdle to go from paper punch cards to a system written on tape is hard to wrap your head around.

Beyer I believe does a really good job of looking not only at the technical accomplishments but the social innovations too. Grace Hopper he points out was not just brilliant as a mathematician but pushed new ways of distributed collaboration in the business world. She worked across industry and between companies bringing in new ideas from others, distributing that new version to others and iterating until a great product arrived. Her first compiler the A-0 was written by herself and then the A-1 by her team at Remmington-Rand. The A-1 then was built by the collective, it was open source before free software was a thing.

For one not familiar with the early programming and hardware evolution Kurt Beyer writes illustratively allowing the reader to place her/himself in the 40’s and 50’s while this all occurred.

Thank you Kurt for writing an awesome introduction to not only the career of Grace Hopper but the beginnings of a new dawn for computing.

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