Taylor Made: Amazing Grace
Grace was born in New York City in 1906. She received her PhD. in mathematics from Yale and then taught at Vassar before joining the Navy Reserves.
As a junior grade lieutenant in 1944, Grace was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. She began working on IBM’s Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC), also known as the Mark I. Her subsequent career would define her as a pioneer of computer programming.
By 1947, Grace had moved to working on Harvard’s Mark II with a team of programmers. The calculating computer operated on relays, switches, and vacuum tubes and could perform a square root in roughly five seconds. Grace and her team discovered a malfunction that needed debugging and traced the problem to a moth stuck in one of the relays. She logged the incident and taped the moth to the logbook page, noting that it was “the first case of an actual bug being found.”
As she continued working on computers, her ideas for their evolution began to solidify. “In pioneer days they used oxen for pulling, and when one ox couldn’t budge a log, they didn’t try to grow a larger ox,” Grace said. “We shouldn’t be trying for bigger computers, but for more systems of computers.”
According to the Computer History Museum, Grace believed that computers would be widely used in the future and worked to make them easier to use. She had the revolutionary idea that computer code could be written in English, using a program based on English words, and then converted to machine code by a compiler.
By 1952, she had finished a compiler for the programming language Arithmetic Language version 0 (aka A-0 system). A-0 was used for programming UNIVAC I, a computer she had helped design. From there she worked to help produce other compiler-based programming languages including FLOW-MATIC and COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language).
Grace was recalled to active duty in 1967 for four years and again in 1972 for fourteen years, where she progressed from commander to captain to commodore and finally rear admiral (lower half). During this time she also advocated for the Defense Department to use networks of smaller computers in place of their current systems.
Upon her final retirement, Grace was recognized as the oldest U.S. active duty commissioned officer of the time and was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. In honor of her naval rank, the guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper was named for her. She died at 85 and was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
“Humans are allergic to change,” Grace said. “They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counterclockwise.”
Quotes taken from the OCLC Newsletter, March/April 1987, No. 167.