“Probably the most dangerous phrase that anyone could use in the world today is that dreadful one: ‘But we’ve always done it that way.’”
-Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper
Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper was one of the pioneers of the modern computer. Hopper was commissioned by the Navy to help develop the very first computer - the Harvard Mark 1 (which was 51’ X 8’ X 2’!). Nicknamed the Queen of Software, Hopper is best known as a trailblazer for writing machine code in English and developing the first compiler, which is a program that converts instructions into a machine-code or a lower-level form so that they can be read and executed by a computer. She is perhaps less well known as the first person to refer to a computer issue as a ‘bug’ (although the term had been around for other complex systems) when her team found a moth in the computer’s relay.
A curious child born in New York City in 1906, Hopper’s formal education was in physics and mathematics. She earned a bachelor’s from Vassar, and a master’s and Ph.D. from Yale. Hopper then began a career as an educator, teaching mathematics at Vassar.
Hopper decided to join the war effort after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and enlisted in the Navy in 1943, but due to her age and size, was redirected to the Navy Reserves. There she was part of the team working on the Harvard Mark I. In 1949 Hopper pushed for programming languages that could understand English, but was continuously shot down. Eventually, the idea caught on and Hopper spent the next few decades as a designer, thought leader, and educator on computer languages. She stressed the importance of modern computers and their exponential potential in the future.
Rear Admiral Hopper’s quote above is the embodiment of innovators who create something completely new by thinking from first principles - the method of evaluating and defining your underlying concepts and assumptions instead of repackaging old ideas built on unquestioned assumptions. Hopper was a true innovator who believed in the power of change. In an interview on 60 minutes, Hopper noticed people were afraid of what computers could mean to society, just as they were once afraid of telephones, and just as they once thought gaslight was safe but electric light wasn’t. It’s important to understand that new technology will always make some fearful, but taking risks and creating new things has been making the world a better place for a long time now. When it comes to taking a risk, whether inventing a new widget, or perhaps reinventing yourself, remember a motto Grace Hopper often repeated: “A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
I highly recommend you go learn more about Rear Admiral Grace Hopper and her contributions to the modern world. Her interviews on 60 Minutes, Letterman, and her laundry list of quotes will motivate you to go out and change the world!
Written by Daniel Rice, creator of the blog Wait...I Don't Get It