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Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was the third-ever programmer for the world’s first programmable computer, the Mark I. Through her years of service to the U.S. Navy and private business, including during World War II, Grace helped push the boundaries of the new computer industry by developing key innovations in computer programming. Known today as Amazing Grace, the Grandmother of Programming, and the Queen of Code, Grace’s contributions to computing continue to shape the way computers operate around the globe.
Randi Zuckerberg likes to call herself “a professional mom to entrepreneurs.” She currently works with more than 20 early and mid-stage companies as an advisor, investor, or board director, the vast majority started and run by female founders. Randi also has a passion for producing and creating media content that celebrates strong, smart women and girls.
Through her company, Zuckerberg Media, she is the best-selling author of four books, producer of multiple television shows and theater productions, and hosts a weekly radio show, Randi Zuckerberg Means Business, on SiriusXM. Randi has been recognized with an Emmy nomination, two Tony Awards, a Drama Desk Award, and a Kidscreen Award.
RANDI ZUCKERBERG Once upon a time, there was a girl whose boundless curiosity helped launch the computer revolution. Her name was Grace.
When Grace was seven years old, in 1913, she sat one day, staring at her alarm clock. How does this work? she wondered.
She grabbed the clock and opened it up. Inside, gears spun and levers moved back and forth. As she poked around inside the clock all the pieces fell to the floor.
Grace’s mouth fell open. She tried to put the clock back together but couldn’t get it to work.
She wasn’t worried, though. There were six more rooms—and every single one had a clock she could take apart.
After Grace took apart the seventh clock, her mom walked in. She looked at Grace, surrounded by what USED to be their clocks…and sighed. She loved Grace’s curiosity. So, she told Grace she could have one clock to play with.
Grace’s mind only became more inquisitive as she got older. And one day, Grace would use her pioneering spirit to figure out—and improve—a new and important invention: Computer Programming
ZUCKERBERG I’m Randi Zuckerberg. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Grace Hopper.
ZUCKERBERG When Grace was little, women in the United States didn’t have the right to vote. And in many middle- and upper-class white families like Grace’s, women were expected to marry, stay home, and take care of their families.
But Grace’s parents thought differently. They wanted Grace to learn just as much as her younger brother. So, when they found her nose in a book, they encouraged her to read more. When she built an elevator with her toy construction set, they cheered her on.
Grace loved the challenge of solving problems—how behind each solution lurked another problem, or another code to crack.
So when she went to Vassar College in 1924 at age 17, she decided to focus on two fields full of problems: mathematics and physics.
ZUCKERBERG Grace excelled at Vassar. One day, a professor asked Grace to tutor another student in physics. With Grace’s help, the student passed!
People realized Grace was a good explainer—especially with difficult topics. So soon she was tutoring whole groups of students.
After Grace finished her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and later a PhD from Yale, she returned to Vassar. But this time, she wasn’t a student—she was a professor!
But some of Grace’s students thought math was boring. So, she spiced things up. She taught her students statistics using cards and dice games. She asked them to write essays about math problems. She brought in other subjects, like architecture and philosophy. Once, she even had students write their own final exam!
Soon, math classes that used to only have a handful of students now filled up whole auditoriums!
Then, one day, everything changed.
ZUCKERBERG It was an icy winter day in 1941. Grace was sitting at her desk at home, grading student papers and listening to a classical music concert on the radio.
Suddenly, a voice interrupted the broadcast: Pearl Harbor, a U.S. military base in Hawaii, had been bombed.
Grace was horrified.
The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a speech:
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked”
Soon, men from across the U.S. were being sent to fight in World War II.
Grace loved her country, she wanted to do something, too. She applied to serve in the Navy—and was immediately rejected.
The Navy told her she was too skinny and too old to enlist. But Grace didn’t take “no” for an answer. She kept at it, and jumped through A LOT of hoops, until, in 1943 she convinced the Navy Reserves to let her in.
ZUCKERBERG At the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School for Women, days started at the break of dawn and went until dusk. The women-in-training marched, did physical training, and took classes on navy history, customs, and identifying different ships and aircraft.
The program was tough, but Grace loved it.
Since they all wore uniforms, she didn’t have to decide what to wear. Since they were fed in the mess hall, she didn’t have to cook. And on top of all that, she was learning so many interesting things!
Like many mathematicians, she thought she would be assigned to cryptography, where she could help break enemy codes.
Instead, the Navy told her she was going to work on a top-secret project: The Mark I, the world’s first programmable computer.
ZUCKERBERG Armed men escorted Grace to the basement of Harvard University’s Cruft Laboratory. When she got there, she was greeted by a tall man with a balding head—her boss, Commander Aiken.
“Where . . . have you been?” he demanded grumpily. “We’ve got to get to work.”
Commander Aiken led her into a stiflingly hot room. Clicks and clacks filled the air, like thousands of knitting needles. Along the wall, Grace saw a massive machine that reached from the floor to the ceiling. Glass panels encased thousands of switches, and rows of tiny lights blinked at her.
“That’s a computing engine,” Commander Aiken said.
It was the fanciest gadget Grace had ever laid eyes on. It was like those clocks when she was 7…times a MILLION.
ZUCKERBERG Grace jumped right into her work.
But there was one problem: She had never used a computing machine before. In fact, the Mark I was the first of its kind.
But this was just the kind of problem she loved to solve.
She flipped through pages of blueprints and circuit diagrams. And, like her old clocks, she took the Mark I apart in her head and put it back together.
To get the Mark I to work, Grace and her colleagues had to translate math problems into a special code. Then, they transferred that code onto paper tape with holes punched out of it. When they fed the tape into the Mark I, it turned on and off the computer’s switches so that it did all the right calculations.
Within weeks, Grace had figured out how to create codes that would solve complicated math problems.
The work she was doing would help gunners and rockets hit their targets. She was helping the U.S. and its allies win the war. She was even involved with a very difficult project – figuring out calculations that helped develop the atomic bomb.
Grace was so good at programming, Commander Aiken asked her to write a book about it.
“I’ve never written a book!” she said.
But Commander Aiken wouldn’t hear any objections. “You’re in the Navy now!” he answered.
Orders were orders…so Grace wrote the book. It became one of the first computer manuals ever written.
ZUCKERBERG The Mark I operated for 24 hours, seven days a week, and her crew operated right alongside her. Sometimes, Grace even slept at the laboratory!
One night, one of Grace’s coworkers burst into her office. Their new computer—the Mark II—had stopped working!
In the computer room, there was no thrumming or clicking. There was only silence….
They reviewed the code, but it was all correct. They examined every inch of the machine—but nothing seemed out of place.
Grace got out her hand mirror to inspect the inside of the computer. She turned it this way and that.
Then, someone saw it—a moth was stuck inside!
One of her colleagues borrowed Grace’s tweezers and removed the dead moth. After that, the computer fired right up. They taped it into the logbook. It may have been the first time an ACTUAL computer bug was found!
ZUCKERBERG This was a happy and fulfilling time for Grace. She had fallen in love with computers, the Navy, and working with her team. But then, in 1945, the war ended, and a year later she was released from active duty. Then in 1949, even though Grace was one of the nation’s leading experts in computer programming, she had to leave her job at the Cruft Laboratory at Harvard…because they refused to hire women there!
Grace ended up joining a computer company in Philadelphia where some say she made some of her most important contributions to computer science.
But – her friends noticed she was drinking often—and too much. And it was getting her into trouble.
Eventually, Grace was hospitalized and entered a treatment program. And, with the support of her close friends, she began the slow journey to recovery.
ZUCKERBERG Soon after, a start-up computer company hired Grace to program their newest machine—the Universal Automatic Computer or UNIVAC.
Writing code was tedious work—and it was easy to make mistakes. To simplify things, Grace developed a way to store common codes in the UNIVAC using special call numbers. That way, people no longer had to figure out the long, complicated codes for common mathematical functions, like “add” or “subtract.” Instead, they could just use their call numbers—and let the computer do the work!
This new system, called a compiler, was revolutionary. But Grace wanted to make computers even more accessible.
What if we taught computers English? Grace wondered. Then, anyone could use a computer.
People told her this was impossible. But she didn’t listen to them.
Grace and her team made a new compiler called FLOW-MATIC. FLOW-MATIC used simple English commands like “multiply” and translated them into code the computer could understand.
It was a breakthrough!
Now, anyone who spoke English could tell the UNIVAC what to do!
Years later, Grace’s efforts inspired the collaborative development of a universal computer programming language called Common Business-Oriented Language, or COBOL.
Thanks to Grace’s leadership and advocacy, COBOL was adopted across the computer industry—and is still used in some computer programs today!
ZUCKERBERG Throughout her career, Grace continued to serve in the Navy Reserves.
When she was 60 years old, they forced her to retire because, they said, again, that she was too old.
Grace told her friends it was the “saddest day in [her] life.”
But then something amazing happened. A few months later, the Navy asked her to return for a short assignment.
That “short assignment” lasted nearly twenty years! During her decades of service, Grace helped the Navy modernize their computer systems and gave talks and presentations on computers around the world.
She could often be seen in airports and on auditorium stages wearing her crisp, white Navy uniform and white hat.
When she finally retired from the Navy — for a second time — Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was 79 years old—the oldest officer on active duty.
ZUCKERBERG In her office, Grace kept a clock that ran backwards to remind her to use her imagination and think outside the box. Because…Grace did exactly that.
Today, Grace is known as Amazing Grace, the Grandmother of COBOL, and the Queen of Code.
Grace passed away in 1992 but her cutting-edge innovations continue to shape the way our computers work each and every day, and she was posthumously awarded the Presidential medal of Freedom in 2016.
As Grace often told the young people she spoke to, “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea, and do new things.”
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Executive Producers are Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger.
This episode was produced by Isaac Kaplan-Woolner. Sound design and mixing by Luis Miranda. Corinne Peterson is our Production Manager.
This episode was written by Alexis Stratton. Proofread by Ariana Rosas. It was narrated by Randi Zuckerberg, who you can learn more about in the next Get to Know episode!
Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi . For more, visit RebelGirls.com.
Until next time, stay rebel!