Grace Hopper: Computer bugs & the language of programming

So, the story goes something like this. In 1947, in Virginia, US, an error was spotted on the Harvard Mark II, one of the first programmable computers in the world. A team went to investigate, discovering that a moth had been caught between a relay in a machine. It was subsequently removed and taped to a logbook, with the following message accompanying it: “First actual case of bug being found.”

US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who worked on this machine, was so fond of this story that she would often recount it to friends, colleagues and acquaintances, so much so that over the years she became inextricably linked to the idea of computer bugs, debugging and bugs in the machine. And so, in addition to being one the foremost pioneers of the computer age, she’s also coined one (or some) of the most well-known phrases.

Except she didn’t. In what is one of the greatest misattributions in computing (programming, in particular), the actual use of bug to “describe a technical problem” precedes Hopper’s use considerably.

This “moth myth”, as Fred R. Shapiro described it in his 1987 Etymology of the Computer Bug: History and Folklore, “is rapidly becoming the most popular item of etymological folklore of our time”. While Shapiro didn’t discount the discovery of an actual moth in 1947, he believes the language of debugging was in use even as far back as 1889 (attributed to the American inventor Thomas Edison).

“I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it, because, they carefully told me, computers could only do arithmetic.”

Whatever you believe about this particular story, what is certain is Hopper’s innovative efforts in computing. She was, for example, instrumental in developing the first compiler, which is a program that transforms code into a language that can be understood and executed by a computer.

Of this, she is quoted as saying: ”Compiling in ’51, nobody believed that … I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it, because, they carefully told me, computers could only do arithmetic, they could not write programs. It was a selling job to get people to try it.”

Further innovations from Hopper, who in 1934 became the first woman to be awarded a PhD in maths in Yale University’s 233-year history – for her thesis New Types of Irreducibility Criteria –  included writing the groundbreaking FLOW-MATIC. This was a programming language that helped take computing away from its mathematical roots (and limitations) and into a more complex and human environment. Basically, she helped computers understand English.

This was a precursor to COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), a transformative and subsequently ubiquitous computing language that drastically advanced on the groundwork delivered by FLOW-MATIC. As with computer bugs, Hopper is wrongly credited with developing COBOL. However, she was certainly instrumental in making a business case for it and so, accordingly, while she is often referred to as the “mother of COBOL”, the “grandmother of COBOL” is more apt.

There is much more to Hopper than this – her legacy reaches far and wide, beyond just computing. As the team behind an upcoming documentary on the programming pioneer see it – provisionally entitled Born with Curiosity – her life coincided with and contributed to “birth of the modern technology industry and the evolution of women’s roles in American society”.

One offshoot of this is the annual Grace Hopper Celebration, which has been active since it was founded in 1994 by Dr. Anita Borg and Dr. Telle Whitney. It is now the largest technical conference of its kind in the world today, designed to bring together women technologists to “learn, exchange ideas and be inspired”.

“With the help of her incredible drive, passion, and creativity, she drastically changed the world of technology as we know it.”

“The thing that impresses me most about Grace Hopper is that time and time again, she could have been turned away from the path she took,” ESET’s security researcher Lysa Myers reflects. “She grew up in a time when women were specifically restricted from doing much of what she wanted to do, and she was too slight to enlist without special permission. But she was undaunted. With the help of her incredible drive, passion, and creativity, she drastically changed the world of technology as we know it.”

This inquisitive character, needless to say, is also a key aspect of her legacy. As a seven-year-old child, so another popular story goes, she was intrigued by mechanics of an alarm clock. So, curiosity piqued, she started to dismantle seven of them to figure out what on earth was going on underneath the timepieces. What could she learn? What could see understand about clocks? What would she change? These questions would later be applied to other challenges she faced across her personal and professional life.

“Humans are allergic to change,” she once remarked. “They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.” As she demonstrated with FLOW-MATIC, and later COBOL, nothing is impossible so long as you put your mind to it.

This quest, to go above and beyond, is how we’ve been able to get from a 51-foot long, eight-foot high, five-ton construct – the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC) – to something that you can put “on a little, tiny corner of a chip”. It’s remarkable, to say the least.

Hopper may not have discovered the first computer bug, coined debugging or write COBOL, but she did discover a real moth nonetheless and make this yarn what we remember it to be. She also made COBOL a possibility, laying new foundations for programming. Add to that her enthusiasm for programming, her aspirations to make the language of computing accessible, it’s easy to see why she is regarded as one of the greats of the computer age.

“A ship in port is safe,” she once said. “But that’s not what ships are built for.”

Author , ESET

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