Bugs in enterprise IT are par for the course, and technologists deal with them as swiftly as possible. Many believe United States Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a mathematician and computer scientist, coined the term “bug” to describe a design flaw or flaw in technical operations. But it was Thomas Edison who first used the term in 1873 when he was working on a telegraph system that could use a single wire to transmit and receive up to four separate telegrams simultaneously, according to IEEE Spectrum.
Most Famous Bug in Mainframe History
Hopper’s team did find the first computer bug – a moth – in a relay calculator inside Harvard University’s Mark II electromechanical computer on Sept. 9, 1947. According to the story – or legend – the moth had been trapped inside the computer, complicating the input of data and the writing, loading, and processing of programs on the Mark I and Mark II computers. The consistency of errors alerted the team that something was wrong.
When the team opened Panel F, according to Computer World, they discovered that a moth was stuck between points in Relay 70. The moth was then removed and taped into the logbook. Under the taped bug, someone – many believed it to be Hopper – had written, “First actual case of bug being found.” Or so the story goes.
Pioneer in the Computing Wild West
Hopper was one of many women who took the unusual step of earning a Ph.D. at a time when women sought new opportunities outside the home. Although she was unable to join the Navy during WWII, she joined the U.S. Naval Reserve where she was assigned to Harvard’s Bureau of Ships Computation Project and served as one of three computer programmers. Unlike the user interfaces of today, Hopper was charged with programming the Mark I by punching machine instructions onto tape. The work of the project was top secret at the time, but essential to the war effort because they calculated rocket trajectories, calibrated minesweepers, and even crunched data related to the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
Hopper is also credited with writing the first computer manual, “A Manual of Operation for the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator.” This manual was based on three papers she co-authored about her work on Harvard’s Mark I computer.
Leaving Harvard and her work may have seemed like a huge gamble, but joining the team at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation led to some of her greatest achievements – one of which is still used on mainframe computers today. In addition to aiding in the development of the UNIVAC I computer, Hopper also thought programming could be simplified.
After three years of pushback, she created the predecessors (i.e., MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC) to the English-based computer programming language, known as COBOL. She also developed the first compiler, A-0, that converted English terms into binary machine code that computers understand.
Hopper’s work didn’t end there. She went on to create standards for testing computer systems and components, including the COBOL (which she was also instrumental in developing in 1959 and 1960) and FORTRAN programming languages (which used mathematical symbols). In this way, she ensured that computers could talk to one another across vendors because it led to the convergence of dialects and data formats among programming languages. These standards and tests are now administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Lifelong Learner and Educator
Even as she turned down tenured positions at Vassar and other educational institutions, Hopper never stopped learning, discovering, and sharing with students, colleagues, and others. She taught numerous seminars at conferences, was a lecturer at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and at George Washington University, and led many workshops for computer professionals and students.
In accepting the National Medal of Technology, Hopper said, “If you ask me what accomplishment I’m most proud of, the answer would be all the young people I’ve trained over the years; that’s more important than writing the first compiler.”
With a journey that began before her discovery of a physical bug in Harvard’s computer, the IT world has sought to honor Hopper’s expertise and this unusual history. From International Software Tester’s Day to the Grace Hopper Celebration, Hopper’s legacy is far-reaching. “Grandma COBOL” was one of IT’s pioneering women, and she paved the way for the women who have since followed in her footsteps. How will you celebrate Grace Hopper’s contributions on Sept. 9?