Grace Hopper and the UNIVAC

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Look at the handheld tablet or smartphone you carry in your pocket or purse. It seems difficult to believe it is far more powerful than the Univac-I computer that weighed 13 tons, had 5,200 vacuum tubes, and took up a whole garage. Only 46 Univac-I computers were ever built but it revolutionized the world.

Grace Hopper, born in New York in 1906, was an associate professor of mathematics at Vassar when WWII broke out. Volunteering for the US Navy Reserve, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project, where she worked on the Harvard Mark I project (a calculating machine used in the war effort), from 1944–9, co-authoring several papers.

In 1949, she moved to the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (later acquired by Remington Rand, and later still by Unisys), and joined the UNIVAC team. UNIVAC, which first ran in 1951, was the second commercially available computer in the US, and the first designed for business and admin rather than for scientific use. That meant that it was intended to execute many simple calculations rapidly, rather than performing fewer complex calculations. Punch-card calculating machines already existed, but crucially, UNIVAC was programmable.

I find it interesting that one of the first customers to receive a Univac-I was the US Census Bureau.

Grace Hopper and her team first programmed the Univac-I in machine language, then developed higher level programming languages, The first language they developed was called FLOW-MATIC. Then they created COBOL, which is still in use today.

You can learn more about Grace Hopper and the history of computing at http://www.linuxvoice.com/history-of-computing-part-2/.

11 Comments

The original (and better) article is here:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/04/23/1-6-million-americans-dont-have-indoor-plumbing-heres-where-they-live/
It’s obvious from looking at the map that a lot of those “homes” are vacation homes, cottages in the woods, and the like.

What is missing from this article is that Grace Murray Hopper was an avid genealogist. I had the pleasure of meeting her at the 1990 NGS Conference in Crystal City and she took a few minutes to chat with me and give me one of her nanosecond wires. A wire cut to the length that an electron travels in a nanosecond. Her rule, “It is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” has probably gotten me in more trouble than any of my other rules over my lifetime.

    I had lunch with Grace Hopper and other women Naval officers in Orlando, Florida in 1983. I also received a “nanosecond” and her sage advice about forgiveness! She spoke to us about what the future had in store in terms of technology and communication, and alluded to the need, in the not-so-distant future, for computer communication to be kept secure.

Census Bureau usage should have bee expected.The (missing) 1890 census was one of the first users of punched card machines (mechanical ancestors computers)

Roderick Jackson May 19, 2014 at 9:31 am

Having worked at both IBM (15 years) and UNIVAC (2 1/2 years), I am familiar with the various languages used in the early days. Spent 1960 to 1975 with IBM which was composed of three companies, Time Recording, Hollowrith and of course IBM. The US census kept UNIVAC in business. When I saw your recent Bio, looks like we followed similar paths. I started to look at my father’s family in 1980. Since then the file has just expanded. I try to keep take of sources. You must have generated a large stack of cards.

I ran into Grace in the basement of the Pentagon in the early 60’s. We chatted briefly about the command center computer system I was involved in and went our separate ways. I’m not sure, but I think she had made captain by that time but perhaps was still a commander.

My husband is currently part of a team at the Bletchley Park, Bucks. UK, computer museum, building a replica of the EDSAC computer , which was originally designed in 1949 for scientific calculations at Cambridge University. I’ve recently been to Bletchley, looking at displays of the Enigma and Colossus computers, both of them built there between 1940 and 1944, to decode secret German military communications during WW2. The result of this work significantly shortened the course of the war. The Colossus could be called the first programmable computer.

I too had the good fortune to hear Grace Hopper speak. I was on active duty in the Navy and she spoke to us at the Naval War College around 1974. She, like Admiral Rickover, was extended on active duty well beyond the normal age of retirement; because of their unique contributions and value to the Navy. As others have mentioned, she always handed out “nanoseconds”–which was a piece of wire the length of which a signal would travel in a nanosecond. I also recall her mentioning that she learned early in her career it was always easier to ask forgiveness for having done something without prior consent that it was to ask for permission first (and probably get turned down or waste a lot of time waiting to get it approved). Pretty good advice for anyone working in a large bureaucracy!

Grace Hopper popularized the term, “debugging,” when tracking a coding problem led to a literal bug — a moth — dead in the circuits. It’s at the end of the link article you provided.

I met Grace Hopper in 1954 when I briefly was working as a programmer on the UNIVAC computer. Remington-Rand had recently obtained a contract with the Air Force to provide computers to keep records of air craft maintenance. I was hired to train the employees at the Air Force bases who would make use of these computers.

I was lucky enough to meet Admiral Grace Hopper in 1983-84 when She visited Fort Myer, Virginia. We had painted a mural and dedicated it to her, and she signed it for us. It was a special moment.

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