'Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age': Book review

Grace Hopper is considered a founder of modern IT. Todd Weiss review's "Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age," a new biography by Kurt Beyer.

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Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age is not your typical IT book.

At first, it's a detailed story of the start of the computer age as we know it, from its origins in U.S. research labs during World War II in the 1940s.

It's also the story of the transitions, glitches, progress and innovation along the way, experienced by the people who were there and at the cusp of what would become the computer revolution.

But more than all of that, it's the story of a fascinating, smart, gutsy and no-nonsense woman who blazed a pathway for herself at a time when women were traditionally seen as the weaker sex. I truly hope that at the time no one ever suggested such a possibility to Hopper, because she would have no doubt decked them, figuratively if not literally.

The book, written by Kurt W. Beyer and published by The MIT Press, weaves the early history of computing with Hopper's incredible contributions to the field.

For some, Hopper is a known legend in the history of IT. She invented the modern compiler, which takes written text and transforms it into the code that can be run on computers. She helped take the fledgling COBOL computer language into a new stratosphere for computing by working to create standards, manuals and tools to drastically improve it and make it more useful, leading to its immense popularity in the early days of the computer age.

After joining the U.S. Naval Reserve following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Hopper was eventually assigned to Harvard University's Computational Laboratory, where she was the third person to join the program's research team. There, Hopper would go on to help learn how to use, program and maintain the huge, new Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator donated to Harvard by IBM in August 1944. She was immediately given the responsibility of writing a detailed 500-page operations manual for the huge machine, which the Harvard team called the Mark 1.

Interestingly, Hopper is credited with first using the now-common IT term "bug" in describing the second-generation Mark II computer, according to the book.

"When we were debugging Mark II, it was over in another building, and the windows had no screens on them and we were working on it at night, of course, and all the bugs in the world came in," Hopper wrote in her log book. "And one night she (Mark II) conked out and we went to look for the bug and found an actual large moth, about four inches in wing span, in one of the relays beaten to death, and we took it out and put it in the log book and pasted Scotch tape over it."

After the war, she went on to work for the former Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. and other high-tech businesses as well as traveled around the world on speaking tours.

Hopper graduated from Vassar College with a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics in 1928. She earned her master's degree and Ph.D. at Yale University in the 1930s. Born in 1906, Hopper died in January 1992 at the age of 85.

For Beyer, Hopper's work and contributions to IT came to light when he was just 14 years old. He heard her speak at his sister's college graduation at William & Mary College in 1982. He was awestruck by Hopper's speech, he said in a telephone interview. Four years later, he heard her speak again, this time at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he had started school for his own career.

He was fascinated by her stories and accomplishments and he never forgot her work and her energy.

"She actually influenced my life considerably," Beyer said. He said that when Hopper came to speak at the Naval Academy, she was there to set up an educational program to bring the next generation of officers up to speed on new computer technologies in the Navy.

That work included giving the young officers new personal computers, "which was a big deal in the mid-80s," Beyer said. "We brought them up to our rooms and we could connect them to Ethernet that was connected to MILNET," which was the precursor of the Internet (formerly known as ARPANET).

"The neat thing about that was that it was the mid-80s and we could communicate with our professors with e-mail and even check our medical records online. That was definitely a theme she was pushing on the young officers in Annapolis. She came to the Academy and spoke about this and told us that she was preparing us for the new information age," Beyer said.

When Hopper finally retired from the Navy in 1990, she had earned the rank of Rear Admiral.

After Beyer's stint at the Naval Academy, he went on to the University of California to pursue his Ph.D., and that's where the idea of a book about Hopper came to fruition.

"It dawned on me that I had received such early exposure to the Internet and to the world of technology years earlier from Hopper's speeches," but when he mentioned her name at the university, he got blank stares from fellow students. "This old lady seemed to be the visionary behind IT for us and nobody had ever heard of her. That definitely stuck in my head."

As he began working on his dissertation on the topic of why some technologies succeed while others fail, he began to see Hopper's name pop up more and more in his research. "It was on the first 30 years of the computer industry, and of course Hopper's role was significant," he said. "As we began to look at my manuscript, we decided to look at her and her effects."

Hopper's legend was more well-known in academic research circles. In 1983, she was the subject of a colorful interview on CBS Television's 60 Minutes, in which she described her IT work, her Navy career and her teaching career. (Click the link for part two of Hopper's 60 Minutes interview).

Beyer spent seven years researching and writing the book, which also delves into Hopper's personal life and bouts with alcoholism, suicide attempts and the pressures of her work.

"It's hard enough being a public figure in the '40s and '50s, but she also achieved so much, and did so much for computing," Beyer said. "We need to tell that story. And I also wanted to leave in the dark parts as well, about the drinking and the suicide attempts, because she was taking on a lot. And even our heroes are human at the end of the day."

But more than anything, the book describes her brilliant thinking and the innovative concepts she developed that led her to see computers doing whatever you want them to do, depending on the software you run.

"The technology didn't have to develop that way," Beyer said. "That was Grace Hopper's vision and she gave us the development tools to help make that happen. We could have ended up with technology that was developed for a single purpose, as were the first computers, to do only certain tasks. What Hopper gave us was what eventually was captured in the iPhone, where you can run whatever applications you want to run on the device. "

As he learned more about her during his research, the book became a labor of love, Beyer said. "She was a strong, smart woman who functioned quite well in the world of the men working in IT in the '50s," he said. "She was a dynamic leader and executive in those early years. That's the woman who I wanted to come out in the story."

Because Hopper died 18 years before the book was published, it sadly doesn't include any direct interviews with her by Beyer. While the book has incredible detail on her accomplishments, inventions, naval career and her IT work, my only complaint is that it often feels more academic than warm and charming.

Beyer, who lives in San Francisco and now works for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney helping tech start-ups get off the ground, said he considers the book to be a "brotherly love story."

"I come from a family of all women," he said. "I have two older sisters. My mom had two sisters and no brothers. My dad had two sisters and all of them are educated, hard-working women. I think that's probably why I was attracted to telling the story of one of the feminine heroes of the 20th century who hadn't gotten her due."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. He spends his spare time working on a book about an unheralded member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies. Follow him on Twitter @TechManTalking.

Book details:
Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age
$27.95
408 pages, hardcover
The MIT Press
ISBN-13: 978-0262013109

To request a PDF of a chapter, contact Pamela Quick at MIT Press at quik@mit.edu. (Note, there is no "c" in "quik" in the email address!)

Publicist: Diane Denner, The MIT Press, 617-258-0564

This was first published in January 2010

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