Anyone who has used a computer program has encountered a bug—an error in the program, a ghost in the machine. Though the term debugging had been in use long before a certain incident, perhaps the first literal case of debugging arrived at the wings of a moth trapped in a Mark II relay. After being unable to determine the computer’s malfunction for some time, the researchers at the Virginia laboratory were quite surprised to remove an actual bug from the computer; among them was Grace Brewster Murray Hopper, computer scientist extraordinaire.
An intelligent woman and incredible programmer, Grace Hopper created the first compiler for any computer programming language, introducing the very idea of compilers upon which programming now depends. Here at Harvard University, she gained a position as one of the original researchers on the Mark I computer, where she was the only woman on the team. A prominent figure in the computer world during the entirety of her career, Grace Hopper invented the FLOW-MATIC programming language, which she and her associates later refined into the Common Business-Orientated Language. “Grandma COBOL” helped the language become the most widely-used programming language in business even today. While many still coded in machine or assembly at the time, Grace Hopper believed that computer languages should be written more closely to plain English to assist in coding and in teaching new programmers. This philosophy permeated through the computer world and has inspired—and continues to inspire—the development of higher-level programming languages and tools that make the process less daunting than ever before.
Her accomplishments do not end at the computer. Over the course of her lifetime, Grace Hopper received nearly fifty degrees or honorary degrees from a variety of institutions worldwide. Her dedication and flawless service in the United States Navy led to her promotion to the prestigious position of rear admiral. Grace Hopper additionally received a full gamut of awards, from the Legion of Merit to the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. In 1969, she was the first woman awarded the Data Processing Management Association Man of the Year award, and in 1973, she became the first female Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. 1987 saw her receive the very first Computer History Museum Fellow Award in American history. Many institutions in the United States and beyond have computer labs, streets, and even supercomputers—a Cray XC-30 model at the University of Maryland-College Park—named after this amazing woman.
A lasting testament to the ability of woman to contribute to computer science, the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing assists aspiring computer scientists and showcases the research and endeavours of women in computing. Without Grace Hopper to break down the doors, spearhead efforts like this one and others may not exist at all.
As for the moth that bugged her computer? It resides, preserved, in the National Museum of American History alongside a note from the Mark II research team about the first case of literal debugging. Next time your compiler chokes, perhaps you can blame Grace Hopper’s fluttery friends instead.