The Unseen Story

Hopper was an outlier her whole life. Born in New York in 1906, she studied math and physics at Vassar, got her masters in mathematics from Yale in 1930 and went on to become one of only a few women to get her PhD in mathematics –also from Yale — in 1934. After graduating she got a job as an associate professor at Vassar, where she worked until compelled to join the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943, during World War II. Because of her mathematics background, Hopper was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, where she became not just one of the first women, but one of the first people to learn modern computer programming.

She continued on as a research fellow at Harvard, during which time she was credited with popularizing the term “computer bug,” a phrase that has its origins in an actual moth caught in the Mark II computer at Harvard. Hopper then transitioned into the private sector in 1949. Working with Remington Rand in 1952, she led a team of engineers and programmers that created the first compiler for computer languages, a precursor to Common Business Oriented Language, or COBOL, a widely adapted language that would eventually be used around the world.

Hopper was recalled to the Navy at the age of 60 to work on standardizing communication between different computer languages. By the time she finally retired, at age 79, she was a rear admiral and the oldest serving officer in the military.