Who Invented the Computer? Grandma COBOL

Who Invented the Computer? This is the eleventh installment in our ongoing series.


Grandma COBOL is a towering figure in the history of computer programming.

According to Stowe family lore, in the midst of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he looked at her and exclaimed, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."


To the 6-foot 4-inch Lincoln almost everyone was "little," of course. And whether true or not, the story does illustrate how much of an impact a determined woman can have on the world — regardless of her physical stature. Another diminutive and determined woman whose intellectual contributions have changed the world for the better was Admiral Grace Brewster Murray Hopper.


Born in 1906 in New York City, Hopper liked to figure out how things worked. As a 7-year-old child, she wanted to understand the interior operations of alarm clocks. In one evening, she disassembled seven different devices before her mother intervened and put a stop to her research.


Young Grace also had a head for numbers and, at age 16, applied for early admission to Vassar College. Unfortunately, she was rejected, because her mastery of Latin did not equal her mathematical acumen. Undeterred, and after further study, she reapplied and was admitted the following year.


Graduating from Vassar with a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics, Hopper decided to further her math skills at Yale University. By 1930, she had a master's degree under her belt and four years later added a Ph.D.


World War II


Hopper was teaching math to Vassar co-eds when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Greatly upset at the attack and despite being 34 years old, she wanted to "do her part" by enlisting in the Navy. The selection board, however, rejected for being too skinny and too old. They also said her job as a math instructor was too important to the war effort for her to join up full-time.


Refusing to be sidelined, Hopper took a leave of absence from Vassar and signed up with the United States Navy Reserve. She did have to receive an exception for her weight: the minimum poundage for women in the USNR was 120; Hopper was a mere 105.


Sent to midshipman school to learn the ins and outs of naval life, Hopper showed she had the right stuff by graduating first in her class. The Navy commissioned her a lieutenant and shipped her to Harvard University to help solve advanced mathematical and physics problems working with the Mark I computer, the world's first general purpose electromechanical computer. The Mark I was eight feet tall and 51 feet long and, in Hopper's own words, was "the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen."


At war's end, Hopper again tried to join the regular Navy but was turned down a second time due to her age, 38. Fortunately, she was still a member of the Navy Reserve, and as such continued to work under a navy contract as a research fellow at Harvard.




By 1949, Hopper had landed with the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, where she worked as a member of the team developing UNIVAC I: the world's first large scale electronic computer available to the public.


While there, Hopper suggested the out-of-the-box idea of creating a programming language that utilized English words instead of octal code and symbols. She envisioned data processors writing programs in English, which the computers would then translate into machine code because, as she explained to all who would listen, "It's much easier for most people to write an English statement than it is to use symbols."


Sadly, her bosses quickly shot the idea down saying, "Computers don't understand English."


Convinced her idea had merit and never one to give up, Hopper would author several papers on her idea and even developed a working compiler to translate mathematical notations into machine code. Three years later, as the company's director of automatic programming, her team hit pay-dirt when it developed the FLOW-MATIC compiler that successfully converted English word instructions into machine code.




Grandma COBOL is a towering figure in the history of computer programming.

In 1959, government and industry computer experts gathered held a confab on data systems languages and invited Hopper to serve as a technical consultant. Expanding on the idea of the FLOW-MATIC, the group developed a programming language designed exclusively for business use.


The development team named it COBOL, an acronym for Common Business Oriented Language. Hopper's vision of programs written in plain English instead of machine code had become a reality and the field of computer programing was forever changed.


In recognition of Hopper's ideas and contribution to the development of the new programming language, she is widely referred to as "Grandma COBOL."


COBOL would go on to become the most ubiquitous business programming language ever. Even today, with more than 9,000 programming languages in use, COBOL remains a major presence because of its structural advantages. It is widely used in the insurance, healthcare, and finance fields, as well as by the Federal Government and numerous state governments.


There are an estimated 100 billion plus lines of COBOL code being utilized daily in systems around the globe. If a company or organization has a mainframe, odds are it is running COBOL in some capacity.


The Navy won't let go


Grandma COBOL is a towering figure in the history of computer programming.

While joining the Navy was difficult for Hopper, separating was even more so. In 1966, she retired at the rank of commander only to be recalled to active duty the following year. The recall was supposed to be temporary, but it soon turned into a four-year hitch.


Hopper retired a second time in 1971, but was again asked to return to active duty in 1972 — someone had to teach the new generation of computer techs how to do things. In 1983, by order of President Ronald Reagan, Hopper was promoted to rear admiral, becoming the first woman to achieve the rank in U.S. Navy history. Her singular accomplishment followed in the footsteps of her great-grandfather, Admiral Alexander Wilson Russell.


Retirement for Hopper finally happened on Aug. 14, 1986, with a celebration in her honor aboard the USS Constitution, the Navy's oldest commissioned ship. In recognition of her 42 years of devoted service, Hopper received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat decoration awarded by the Department of Defense.


Hopper continued to lecture on the development of computers and was an in-demand speaker at universities and conferences until passing away of natural causes in 1992 at the age of 85. Up until the end of her life, she was extremely proud of her Naval service, calling it the "highest award I could ever receive."


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.