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Nervous System: The Triumphs of a Lazy Programmer

David Kalat

May 5, 2020

David Kalat writes about how Grace Hopper created what would evolve into the most commonly used programming language for business applications in the mid-twentieth century.

This month marks the anniversary of the publication of Grace Hopper’s landmark work in computer science, “The Education of a Computer.” In seven typewritten pages published by the Remington Rand corporation in 1952, Hopper bequeathed to future generations something computer scientists in her day resisted, but programmers today likely take for granted: the ability to write code in programming languages that are (reasonably) understandable to humans. This was not always the case. In fact, in Hopper’s day, being a computer programmer meant physically connecting wires and switches at a level that today’s coders would consider engineering, not programming.

Hopper, a US Navy rear admiral and Ph.D. in mathematics, is one of the most important figures in computer science. She famously had a specially made wall clock that ran counterclockwise as a constant reminder to “think differently.” She was born at a propitious moment in history. She received her degrees from Vassar in 1928 and Yale University in 1930 and 1934 at a time when women were receiving doctorates at a rate not matched until the 1980s. The onset of World War II opened job opportunities that had previously been denied to women.

Hopper’s first attempt to enlist in the war effort in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor was rebuffed due to her age and small size, but still she persisted and joined the US Navy Reserve. She was assigned to work on a project at Harvard designing computers to solve the complex calculations for weapons systems to fire accurately at airplanes. She was one of the programmers working on the Harvard Mark 1 computer—a fifty-foot-long collection of wheels, gears, and switches cabled together by 530 miles of wires. To instruct the computer meant first working out which switches should be switched in which way, and which bits needed to be plugged into other bits. Then she had to personally flip those switches and connect the wires.

In 1949, Hopper joined J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation to help them build computers for commercial purposes. Once again she confronted the mind-numbing aspects of programming early computers.

In the spirit of “exasperation is the mother of invention,” Hopper’s insight came from recognizing how much of her time and attention were spent hardwiring the same routines, over and over. Certain low-level tasks tended to repeat in different algorithms. She cataloged these “bread and butter” routines and assigned them symbolic codes.

Hopper could then string together more easily a sequence of these symbolic codes and let the “compiler” do the drudge work of translating the steps into the corresponding machine language. This permitted her to, as she put it in her landmark paper, “return to being a mathematician.” This brilliant method of reusing software code has since become so familiar as to pass almost without notice. As Hopper quipped, “No-one thought of that earlier, because they weren’t as lazy as I was.”

Hopper continued to improve her compiler programs, with the ultimate goal of enabling programmers to write code in ordinary English, while a back-end of compilers would convert that human language into machine language. That goal remained for her—and for us—elusive, but it animated her efforts.

Happy users of her compiler started mailing her their reusable routines, which she added to the compiler library for the nest release. This process evolved into one of the first computer programming languages, the Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL). COBOL emerged in 1959, and it too proved to be a lasting influence on the world of computers.

COBOL became the most commonly used programming language for business applications in the middle of the twentieth century—so ubiquitous, in fact, that many organizations and governments never replaced that code. This surfaced unexpectedly in the present-day COVID-19 pandemic, when state governments around the United States found themselves overwhelmed by coronavirus-related unemployment claims. These governments still ran their systems on COBOL, which created an unprecedented need for competent COBOL programmers to help improve and update the programs to process the claims.

Although Hopper shrugged off her invention of software compilers as something done out of “laziness” so she could avoid the drudgery of machine coding, it was a tremendous leap forward into a new age of software coding. Programmers today can thank Hopper that they do not need to hand-wire their programs into circuit boards.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, position, or policy of Berkeley Research Group, LLC or its other employees and affiliates.

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David Kalat