Grace Hopper, mathematician and computer pioneer

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Grace Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, circa 1960 (Source: wikimedia)
Grace Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, circa 1960 (Source: wikimedia)

Historically, the role of women in scientific discoveries and advances has often been downplayed, or even completely erased, to the detriment of their male colleagues. Several of our articles have already mentioned this phenomenon, known as the Matilda effect. This theory was developed in the 1960s in the USA and given its nickname later in the 1990s, in reference to a 19th-century American feminist writer and activist by the name of Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Knowing this phenomenon, it becomes obvious and important to highlight the work of all these women, who have contributed and continue to contribute to the development of science and our society in general. Today, the story of Grace Hopper will be presented in this article. Well, at least part of her story, and with good reason: it’s not easy to describe all her contributions in a single article!

In 1934, after obtaining her Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Mathematics at Yale University, Grace Hopper began teaching at Vassar College, where she had previously obtained her Bachelor’s degree. In a tense climate, due to the Second World War raging in Europe, Grace Hopper then joined the Navy WAVES(Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service ), a branch of the US Army, in 1943. Promoted to lieutenant a year later, she worked in the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University. With her team, she developed the Harvard Mark 1 digital calculator, considered one of the first fully automatic calculators.

Grace Hopper’s contributions to the evolution of computer languages and their accessibility to the general public are numerous and important. But it’s also an anecdote that makes her name stand out. You’ve probably already heard of the expression "bug informatique" (sometimes also written "bogue" in French). Derived from the English word for "insect", the origin of the term "bug" in computing - which describes a computer error or blockage - is said to have come from an insect that got inside a computer and electrocuted itself.

One of the distortions of this story is that the discovery of this insect was made by Grace Hopper. Although Grace Hopper has denied this, the fact remains that a member of her team discovered a moth in a Mark 2 computer and "immortalized" it in Grace Hopper’s notebook.

After the war, Grace Hopper continued her work in programming and was involved in many innovations, not least in her work at IBM. Her many contributions were - and still are - a great source of inspiration for the generations that followed. In fact, Grace Hopper has always been keen to support and motivate young people who are thirsty for knowledge and want to enter these fields.

Indeed, in sectors at the very heart of most of modern society’s great innovations, it is essential to train future generations, the important thing ultimately being to let young people discover, try out and occasionally guide them. "Amazing Grace" was indeed a pioneer in her field, and her name will go down in history.

By Tina Jutzeler, civil engineering student at HEIA-FR and ambassador for engineering and architecture.