Amazing Grace Hopper on Letterman

For whatever reason, this extremely old clip of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper on the David Letterman show is making the rounds at Reddit:

Hopper was an amazing lady.  She earned a PhD in mathematics at Yale in 1934, at a time when women simply didn’t do such things.  She left the faculty of Vassar in 1943, at the age of 37, to join the WAVES, the women’s Navy auxiliary.

She went on to work on the team that developed the world’s first modern computer, the Harvard Mark I, and pioneered dozens of innovations in computer science over a long career.  She retired twice, in 1966 and 1971, but was persuaded to come back to active duty within a few months both times.   She ultimately retired for good in 1986 as a rear admiral.   A Burke class destroyer was named after her in 1992.

I gather from the conversation with Letterman that she had just recently retired.  She died, aged 85, on New Years Day 1992.

My first exposure to Hopper was as an 18-year-old cadet in 1984 when then-Commodore Hopper addressed our class.  (The Navy abolished the rank the next year, renaming it “Rear Admiral, Lower Half.”)    She would have been going on 78 years old at the time but she was truly deserving of the nickname Amazing Grace.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    Bad spelling in title.
    That and COBOL and ADA were terrible, committee-designed, languages.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    Thanks for sharing the clip.  Grace Hopper has always been one of my heroes.  I learned programming from a Catholic brother who knew her.  I’m not sure exactly what they did together, but he did work on Cobol (for you old timers out there). It changed my view of the world to learn that the religious orders had computer programmers, and when he mentioned Hopper and I started to learn about her, that changed my world even more.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Bad spelling in title.

    Ugh. Fixed!

    That and COBOL and ADA were terrible, committee-designed, languages.

    Yeah, well, they were starting from scratch.

  4. john personna says:

    I don’t know if this is really interesting to anyone else, but COBOL came out of a time … at that point I’d say we had a mistaken idea about “computer friendliness.”  COBOL was meant to be readable by non-programmers, rather than concise and expressive for programmers.  Later languages doubled back in a sense.  I’d say Algol (standardized in ’58, the year of my birth) looks more like our modern standard, Java, than Cobol (standardized in ’68).
    Of course, each successive market-standard had its weaknesses which weren’t really obvious at their birth.  C, a mid-level language with great array and pointer freedom, ended up widely used.  Those arrays and pointers allowed junior (and sometimes senior) programmers to put persistent bugs into large projects.  They also enabled buffer-overrun security exploits that plague us to this day.
    Java does some things well, but IMO it’s early choice of a class-loader (rather than a library-loader) plagues modern designs.  The decision was appropriate to the original set-top-box use-case, but monster server applications less so.  It could also do better with versioning of components at runtime.  Clemens Szyperski wrote a great book on this and probably could have done great thing if he hadn’t swallowed Microsoft’s anchor.

    On old ideas of “computer friendliness” it’s interesting too that the Mac was walked back from the 1984 vision of no command line, anywhere.  Now you can pop a window and run your native shell.

  5. RM says:

    Adm Hopper spoke to my Defense Systems Management College class in 1986. She was certainly sharp then and it was a pleasure to listen to her.

  6. MarkedMan says:

    That and COBOL and ADA were terrible, committee-designed, languages.

    While that may be true, in COBOL’s case it’s a little like saying the Babbage’s Difference Engine was poorly designed mechanically. Or that the Wright Brother’s airplane didn’t use real flaps. True, but misses the point about a pioneering effort.
    Heck, I can’t even let the ‘design by committee’ comment pass.  The ‘committee’ in 1959 consisted of Grace Hopper.  And the ‘committee’ for COBOL 68 had a grand total of 6 people.
    From what I remember about ADA, it wasn’t half so bad as the smug programmers of the day claimed. Most people disparaged it because it was designed by committee but never actually looked at it. I can say it, I was a smug programmer, although not about ADA.
    Bonus points: Why was it called ADA?