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When Did That Happen?

Grace Murray Hopper and Automatic Coding

by Dan Wohlbruck

Generic image illustrating the article
  Grace Hopper calls for a library of programming routines.  

On February 16, 1955, Dr. Grace Murray Hopper, then the Director of Programming Research at the Remington Rand Corporation, delivered a paper titled “Automatic Coding for Digital Computers” at a conference at Louisiana State University. Her paper began by enumerating six steps which every problem must go through. As described by Dr. Murray, those steps are:

  • Analysis

  • Programming

  • Coding

  • Debugging

  • Production Running

  • Evaluation

Although these steps are familiar, this is the coding task as understood by Dr. Hopper in 1955:

“It is then the job of the coder to reduce the flow charts to the detailed list of computer instructions. At this point, an exact and comprehensive knowledge of the computer, its code, coding tricks, details of sentinels and of pulse code are required.”

By 1955, it was already understood that coding the program was the most troublesome step. Grace Hopper wanted an automatic coder that would draw on previously written routines that could then be linked together to make a single program. She believed the benefits of such automatic program generation to be:

“If a routine is produced by a master routine from library components, it does not require the fourth phase—debugging—from the point of view of the coding. Since the library routines will all have been checked and the compiler checked, no errors in coding can be introduced into the program.”

Dr. Hopper was a lady of her word. Later that year, a team that she led at Remington Rand introduced something called Flow-Matic, the first programming language designed for business users that expressed computer commands in something like the English language. Flow-Matic was used by Rand engineers for two years before being made available to the public in 1958.

But Dr. Hopper didn’t stop there. Since Flow-Matic was designed for use by Sperry Rand computers, by 1959 it became obvious that something like it was needed for more general use. A meeting was held at the Pentagon on May 28 and 29, 1959, where it was decided that during the next few months a committee should be formed to recommend a short-range approach to a common business language. Grace Hopper was appointed as the technical advisor to the committee. By the end of the year, the committee delivered its first specification and, after editing and approval by the parties involved, the COBOL 60 Report was issued by the US Printing Office in June 1960.

From that date forward, all computers ordered by the US government would have to be delivered with a COBOL compiler.

As a result of her pioneering work, Dr. Hopper was named the 1969 Computer Sciences “Man of the Year” by the Data Processing Management Association. In 1971 Grace Hopper retired from Sperry-Rand. Because Dr. Hopper had served in the Navy during World War II, she was reactivated in a White House ceremony in 1983 and promoted to the rank of commodore and then rear admiral. In 1985 she became simply Admiral Hopper and in 1990 she was awarded the National Medal of Technology.

On January 1, 1992, Grace Hopper died at the age of 85. In a tribute to her placed in the Navy’s website, the following is reported:

“One dream Hopper didn’t fulfill was living to the age of 94. She wanted to be here December 31, 1999 for the New Year’s Eve to end all New Year’s Eve parties. She also wanted to be able to look back at the early days of the computer and say to all the doubters, ‘See? We told you the computer could do all that!’”

Admiral Hopper was one of a very small number of people who was instrumental in making the computer “do all that.”

It all started in February 1955—and that’s when it happened.

Dan Wohlbruck has over 30 years of experience with computers, with over 25 years of business and project management experience in the life and health insurance industry. He has written articles for a variety of trade magazines and websites. He is currently hard at work on a book on the history of data processing.

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