Computer programming pioneer Grace Murray Hopper was born on December 9, 1906, in New York City. Her childhood and early years contributed to her brilliant career but also showed how she was a typical kid in many ways.
She was the oldest of three children. Her sister Mary was three years younger and her brother Roger was five years younger than Grace. She fondly recalled the happy summers playing typical childhood games together at a cottage on Lake Wentworth in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
Still, she thought that she took the blame too often for mischief the children and their cousins got into on vacation. Once, she lost her swimming privileges for a week for instigating them to climb a tree. Besides playing outdoors, she also learned crafts such as needlepoint and cross-stitch. She enjoyed reading and learned to play the piano.
Hopper liked to tinker with gadgets and find out how they worked. At age seven she was curious about how her alarm clocked worked. But when she took it apart, she was unable to put it back together. She continued taking apart seven alarm clocks, to the displeasure of her mother, who limited her to taking apart just one.
Math Talent Runs in the Family
Her father, Walter Fletcher Murray, and paternal grandfather were insurance brokers, a profession which makes use of statistics. Grace's mother, Mary Campbell Van Horne Murray, loved math and went along on surveying trips with her father, John Van Horne, who was a senior civil engineer for the city of New York. While it wasn't proper at that time for a young lady to take an interest in math, she was allowed to study geometry but not algebra or trigonometry. It was acceptable to use math to keep household finances in order, but that was all. Mary learned to understand the family's finances because feared her husband would die from his health problems. He lived to be 75.
Father Encourages Education
Hopper credited her father for encouraging her to step beyond the usual feminine role, have ambition and get a good education. He wanted his girls to have the same opportunities as his boy. He wanted them to be self-sufficient since he wouldn't be able to leave them much of an inheritance.
Grace Murray Hopper attended private schools in New York City where the curriculum focused on teaching girls to be ladies. However, she was still able to play sports at school, including basketball, field hockey, and water polo.
She wanted to enter Vassar College at age 16 but failed the Latin exam, She had to be a boarding student for a year until she was able to enter Vassar at age 17 in 1923.
Entering the Navy
Hopper was considered too old, at age 34, to join the military after the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II. But as a mathematics professor, her skills were a critical need for the military. While Navy officials said she should serve as a civilian, she was determined to enlist. She took a leave of absence from her teaching position at Vassar and had to get a waiver because she was underweight for her height. With her determination, she was sworn into the U.S. Navy Reserve in December 1943. She would serve for 43 years.
Her younger years shaped her path to the computer programming legacy for which she is famous. Later in life, after her time in the Navy, she invented the Mark I Computer with Howard Aiken. Her early math talent, her education, and her Navy experience all played a role in her eventual career.
Source and Further Reading
- Elizabeth Dickason, Remembering Grace Murray Hopper: A Legend in Her Own Time, The Department of the Navy Information Technology Magazine, 27 June 2011.