Grace Hopper and the invention of the information age

Kurt W. Beyer

Publisher

The MIT Press

ISBN

978-0-262-01310-9

RRP

£20.95

Reviewed by

Danny Williams MBCS CITP

Score

9 out of 10

Grace HopperRear Admiral Grace Hopper died in 1992, aged 86. Her legacy is a fundamental influence over how we program and operate computers. Throughout her lifetime she embodied the characteristics of IT professionals that we still struggle to achieve today.

Grace Hopper was a true versatilist. She came to computers from a mathematics background, and continued to learn and develop skills in an extremely wide range of disciplines.

This enabled her to see the problems that people wished to solve from a variety of viewpoints, instead of just the computer programming position that many use today. In order for her to program a computer she had to first learn the vocabularies of the people she was helping. Be that nuclear reactors, artillery shells or counting citizens for a census.

Her formative computing years were spent at Harvard during World War II working for the incredibly demanding Commander Howard Aiken. This team of academics and navy personnel worked closely with IBM to produce the Mark 1 computer.

The author describes the creation of Mark 1 from both Grace Hopper's perspective and IBM's. He then provides his own analysis, which I found very useful in building up a more complete picture of arguably the first general purpose computer.

Throughout her years, Grace Hopper demonstrated the behaviour of a connector - someone who brings people together. Her success was reliant on her ability to bring people together and influence their thinking.

It's one thing to have a good idea, and another to make it work; however if you aren't able to sell it then the idea will sit unused forever. There are many concepts which Grace Hopper pioneered and we have rediscovered more recently - such as Open Source Software.

The book covers much more than Grace Hopper’s life - it is broadly about what was happening in computing between the 1940s and 1960s. It is an easy read but I advise leaving the first chapter until the end as it just covers the process of researching and writing the book.

If you work in IT, then you really should read this book. It explains a lot about how we arrived where we are. Without Grace Hopper it would take much longer to program computers - she invented the compiler. Meanwhile, COBOL is still alive and well today - and much of that is down to Grace Hopper's work over 50 years ago!

Further information: The MIT Press

December 2009