New from the “Arts of Innovation” Web site:
The year was 1953. The United States and the Soviet Union had each developed a hydrogen bomb. Jonas Salk had created a polio vaccine. Francis Crick and James Watson had discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. General Motors introduced the Corvette. Red Sox baseball star Ted Williams was a fighter pilot in Korea, while U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy campaigned against communist symphathizers. Computers were as big as a room.
It was also the year when 47-year-old experimental innovator Grace Murray Hopper pieced together a new type of computer program — the compiler.
It was the culmination of 10 years of work in the emerging field of computers. That began for Hopper during World War II, at age 37, when she left a position teaching math at Vassar to join the Navy. She was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard, where she would work on one of the country’s first computers, the Mark I. It was fifty-one feet long.
She learned how to program it and soon wrote a computer operations manual, based on her work with the Mark 1. By the war’s end, she had moved on to the Mark II model and then became a research fellow at Harvard.
In retrospect, her invention of the compiler was a breakthrough into a new type of program, which translates English-language commands into code that the computer can understand. But the process of creating the compiler was piecemeal, not based on a sudden inspiration. Hopper created the compiler to consolidate and automate a variety of subroutines for different programming tasks that she had jotted down on pieces of paper.
Her motivation, she said, was laziness. She also hoped that, with the compiler, “the programmer may return to being a mathematician.”
Her work, says one tech-savvy biographer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center: “embodied or foreshadowed enormous numbers of developments that are now the bones of digital computing: subroutines, formula translation, relative addressing, the linking loader, code optimization, and even symbolic manipulation of the kind embodied in Mathematica and Maple.”
Her invention of the compiler depended on her decades of experience in math and computers, but it wasn’t her last noteworthy achievement.
In her 50s, she helped invent the COBOL computer language. Like the compiler, It turns English-language commands into code that a computer can understand. COBOL was the first computer language for businesses and is still in use today.