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June 23, 2020 Tuesday 11:31:29 AM IST

“Amazing Grace”, the First Debugger

Creative Living

There is an interesting story behind coinage of the word bug used to describe any errors or glitches in a computer program. Grace Hopper, one of the most influential computer scientists, was working with Harvard Mark II, an electromechanical computer built in 1947 by Howard Aiken. Without any warning the system failed. On detailed examination, Hopper traced the error to a dead moth that was trapped in a relay. In the log book of the computer she entered “caused by computer bug”, which got itself established in the computer jargon!

Admiral Grace Hopper was a groundbreaking computer scientist, who invented the first compiler in 1952, which could convert human language into machine language or sequences of 1s and 0s, that a computer will understand. She named it the A compiler and its first version, A.0. Hopper advocated development of machine-independent programming language or high-level programing language and participated in the development of the first language in the category, called Common- Business-Oriented Language (COBOL). A mile stonein the history of computers!

In analogy with the first industrial revolution, Hopper reimagined the further development of computers. She said: “In pioneer days they used oxen for heavy pulling, and when one ox couldn’t budge a log, they didn’t try to grow a larger ox. We shouldn’t be trying for bigger computers, but for more systems of computers”. Prioritization of system development over size improvement remained the driving vision for the future of computer technology. What a visionary!

Hopper was nick-named by her colleagues as “Amazing Grace”. In her, the world encountered a prolific inventor and the female icon for technological innovation for the times to come.

Her Story

Grace Brewster Murray Hopper, née Grace Brewster Murray, was born as the eldest of three children of Walter Fletcher Murray and Mary Campbell Van Horne in New York on 9th December, 1906. Grace was a curious child, who liked to explore mechanical devices. In an attempt to determine how an alarm clock worked, she is said to have dismantled seven alarm clocks at home, before her mother could notice it! However, she was rejected admission to Vassar College at age 16 in her first attempt, as her knowledge of Latin was too low. Grace revenged it by completing her bachelor degree in Mathematics and Physics from the same college at Phi Beta Kappa. Consequently, she earned her master’s degree and a Ph. D in Mathematics from Yale University.

Her marriage with Vincent Foster Hopper, a professor at New York University professor in 1930 lasted only 15 years. Though she got divorced from him and did not marry again, Grace chose to retain his surname, Hopper During the World War II in 1943, at the age of 34, Hopper wished to join American Navy, but her application was rejected as she had already crossed the age bar for entry and as her weight to height ratio was too low. However, she managed to be part of Navy Reserves and worked intermittently in the American Navy and retired as the nation’s oldest active duty officer in 1986! Following her retirement from the Navy, Hopper was hired as a Senior Consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and retained that position until her death at the age of 85 in Virginia.

Never Say Nonsense!

The story of the first compiler by Grace Hopper, is an eye-opener to perceive the power of persistence. Initially, as Hopper presented her concepts, a section of colleagues chose to ignore it as they believed that computers would never understand English! However, Grace insisted on the usefulness of the concept, saying: “It is much easier for most people to write an English statement than it is to use symbols”. Hopper developed a flowchart, where the programmers write their program in English, which computers would translate them into machine code. Though her idea was not accepted for almost three years, she kept on publishing on the topic and eventually went on to develop a first compiler! The persistence was paid off!

An original and useful idea shall never be in vain or die a natural death! Hopper’s idea of writing computer programs in a language that was close to English, rather than in assembly language or in machine code got further recognition, when the team went on to develop the first ever business language, COBOL. Here people could just say, “Subtract income tax from pay” instead of trying to write that in octal code or using all kinds of symbols. COBOL was, in fact, an extension of the compiler-based programming language, FLOWMATIC, first developed by Grace Hopper.  Hopper went on to develop a validation software for COBOL and its compiler as part of a COBOL standardization program.

Never Say Retire!

Grace Hopper knew the human inertia towards any kind of change. She said: “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.” To defeat own intellectual inertia, Hopper never ceased to ask questions. She considered it as a prerequisite of innovating in the age of information. She said: “We’re flooding people with information. We need to feed it through a processor. A human must turn information into intelligence or knowledge. We’ve tended to forget that no computer will ever ask a new question”.

In her 40 years in the field of computation, she developed “the machine that assisted the power of the brain rather than muscle.” She started her career, working with Mark I, the first large-scale digital computer. “It was 51 feet long, eight feet high, eight feet deep,” she once commented.

“And it had 72 words of storage and could perform three additions a second”. Mark II, developed by her team was almost half the weight of Mark I and 2.6 times faster for addition and 8 times faster for multiplications. This development may not be complete even with the fastest supercomputer, Summit of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, with its amazing capability of 200 petaflops. Quantum computers are yet to establish themselves to beat all these computers. It is an ongoing process.Never say done!

Never Say Said!

Hopper was a gifted teacher. She taught at Vassar College, Moore School of Electrical Engineering, and at George Washington University. She once said: “If you ask me what accomplishment I’m most proud of, the answer would be all the young people I’ve trained over the years; that’s more important than writing the first compiler.”

Hopper was aware of the power of communication as she worked as spokesperson for evolving computer industry. “I’ve come to feel that there is no use doing anything unless you can communicate,” she once said. Her communication was characterized by pictorial representation of concepts.

In a classical example, the audience wanted to know why satellite commucommunication took so long. Handing out wires of about 30 cm to the audience, she quipped: “It is the distance that light travels in one nanosecond.” She gave these pieces of wire the metonym “nanoseconds”. She told her audience that the length of her nanoseconds was actually the maximum speed the signals would travel in a vacuum, and that signals would travel more slowly through the actual wires. Later, she used a coil of wire of about 300 meters, to illustrate why computers had to be small to be fast. She called it a “microsecond”! In the same vein, she called a grain of pepper as “picoseconds”! She kept on inventing new expressions for the idea she wanted to communicate and never said “said”!

Celebration of Grace

Grace Hopper Celebration is the name given for the world’s largest gathering Women in Computing. It is an invitation to all women of the day to become aggressively part of the world of computing. Thus, it is the right celebration of Grace Hopper, the visionary of computation era, who said: “I think we consistently…underestimate what we can do with computers if we really try”. Grace Hopper keeps on inviting “to try further” in order to push back the boundaries!

Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran

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