Where are her writings?

The Strange Case of Grace Murray Hopper

by Conrad Weisert
April 10, 2010
© 2010 Information Disciplines, Inc.

This article may be circulated freely as long as the copyright notice is included.

Any discussion of the history of computing includes an adoring tribute to Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, USN (1906-1992), the acknowledged "mother of COBOL". I was privileged to know her and to attend her immensely stimulating presentations several times. I recall her feigning indignation when the Chicago ACM Chapter program chair introduced her as "an institution", but she was indeed a towering institution in our profession. She is particularly admired by groups honoring women in computing.

In her presentations Admiral Hopper expressed strong views about the pros and cons of various programming languages and methodologies. Although she expressed such opinions in an entertaining manner that often drew applause, some of those views struck knowledgeable computer scientists at the time as at best old-fashioned and at worst unenlightened.

Of course an octogenarian "institution" has every right to hold old fashioned views, but she piqued our curiosity. We wanted to see something she had written: a technical article, a book on programming, or just some program code. If she maintained for decades that COBOL was the perfect vehicle for business applications, then we'd love to see a COBOL program that she actually wrote. I'd settle for a pre-COBOL program she wrote for a UNIVAC system. Or how about a technical article illustrating some programming techniques?

Such material may exist, but it's not easy to find. If you do an Internet search for her name you will find:
  • dozens of books and articles about Admiral Hopper, and
  • dozens of pithy quotes from and reminiscences of her speeches,
but you won't easily find material by Grace Murray Hopper. Where is all of it?

When I've asked this question before I've encountered shock. How dare I question the competence or the credentials of one of the giants of our field? No, I'm not trying to diminish Admiral Hopper's deserved reputation as an innovator and respected pioneer; I'd just like to see something that she actually did.

Final Word—July 1, 2010

Repeated efforts to solicit information about Admiral Hopper's concrete contributions yielded nothing. One response related a frustrating experience in which she got the Navy to pressure a contractor to implement a huge satellite-orbit computing program in COBOL! Fortunately the contractor prevailed, after a lengthy dispute.

Reluctantly we have to conclude that Grace Murray Hopper was a colorful personality, an entertaining speaker, and a congenial dinner companion. But her programming experience was limited to small programs, the kind that might have replaced unit-record plugboards. She obviously had little grasp of the issues in building large software applications. —CW

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Last modified August 22, 2011