Industry Insights

What the World Would Look Like Without Grace Hopper

By Aditi Chandrasekar

115 years ago today, a girl was born in New York City. The world would never be the same.

Grace Brewster Murray Hopper is remembered as a curious and sharp-tongued woman who shattered not one but several glass ceilings. An admiral in the U.S. Navy who became an early pioneer in computing, her contributions to the world of modern programming became the foundation upon which subsequent generations of technologists built the future.

Today, members of the tech industry honor its founding mother in every way we can: AnitaB.org’s annual Grace Hopper Celebration, Google’s eponymously named subsea cable system, Fullstack Academy’s Grace Hopper coding bootcamp, to name but a few. 

In honor of her birthday, we’d like to contribute — in a small way — to remembering the woman who perhaps more than anyone embodies our mission of accelerating the world’s innovation. To get a sense of the immense impact the Queen of Code had on our industry, we’ve imagined what the world of computer programming would look like without Grace Hopper’s contributions. 

(Spoiler alert: it’s not pretty.)

1. We would still be writing programs in machine code.

Grace Hopper had a big idea: What if computer programs could be written in English? Although that thought was initially shot down by her superiors, she pursued it diligently — and in 1952, her team developed the first ever compiler for the A-0 programming language. Though it lacked the bells and whistles of a modern compiler, it served as a stepping stone for them and the development of high-level languages at large.

Her motivation was simple. “It’s much easier for most people to write an English statement than it is to use symbols,” she later recalled in her oral history. A few years after breaking new ground with A-0, Hopper and her team went on to write and implement B-0 — or FLOW-MATIC, as it’s better known. It was the first programming language to use English-like expressions.

The impact her vision had on making computer programming more accessible goes without saying. Today, artificial intelligence has made such vast strides that developers can now almost write an entire computer program using only spoken language.

2. Software would likely be closed source.

In 2020, the demand for programmers who were proficient in COBOL, a 60-year old language, suddenly skyrocketed in governments and banks. In technical circles, it was aptly nicknamed “the language that won’t die.”

This language was developed by Hopper and her broader team, with borrowed features from FLOW-MATIC — and used pieces of code sent to her by fans of her compiler.

This practice of building and upgrading a software openly and with multiple contributors is now known as open-source development, and Hopper was one of the first people to do it. In recent years, the adoption of open-source software in businesses has soared (look no further than popular open-source tools like Firefox or WordPress), and it’s predicted to soon overtake the success of traditional closed-source software.

3. Bugs wouldn’t be called “bugs.” 

On September 9, 1947, Hopper was working on a computer in Harvard University that seemed to be malfunctioning. She decided to poke around the system to find the source of her troubles.  

To her surprise, she found a moth stuck in a relay in the computer. As the story goes, she then taped the insect in her log book, recording the world’s first “computer bug” and coining one of the most popularized terms in the history of computer programming. 

4. Computer manuals might not exist. 

The famed Harvard Mark I computer was the first computer to have a dedicated user manual — clocking in at 561 pages, at that. The team who created this manual consisted of Howard Aiken, who developed the computer, and Grace Hopper.

The comprehensive document was officially titled A manual of Operation for the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, after the IBM-granted name for the machine which played a significant role in World War 2.

Grace’s work for the Mark I computer showed the world how important user manuals for machines as complicated as computers were, and the importance of documentation for hardware and software continues to be emphasized today.

5. The world wouldn’t look like it does today.

Technological innovation has completely transformed the way the world works. Our current reality is fully shaped by the apps on our phones, the social connections we make online, and the labor we perform on or alongside computers.

Hopper’s accomplishments are vast, but the opportunities they unlocked for future innovators are even more far-reaching. A safe argument would posit that we have Hopper to thank — in ways both direct and indirect — for every single way in which we interact with technology in modern life.

Hopper spent a lifetime paving the way for modern computer programming, and to this day serves as an inspiration to women in a male-dominated field. In 1973, she became the first woman to become a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. In 1991, she was once again the first woman to receive the National Medal of Technology. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. 

While we don’t know for sure what the world would look like without Hopper’s contributions, what we do know is this: The world will continue to honor the gift that was Grace Hopper, for a long time to come.

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