Grace Hopper Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Capt. Grace Hopper, then head of the Navy Programming Language Section of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, discusses a phase of her work with a staff member in August 1976.

Published Nov 22, 2016 7:11 PM by The Maritime Executive

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, best known for her advancements in computer programming and data processing, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously by President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony on November 22. 

"If Wright is flight, and Edison is light, then Hopper is code," Obama said of the innovator who he noted was a "gutsy and colorful" woman.

"While the women who pioneered software were often overlooked, the most prestigious award for young computer scientists now bear her name," he said referring to the annual Grace Murray Hopper Award for Outstanding Young Computer Professionals, established in 1971 by the Association for Computing Machinery.

"From cell phones to [U.S.] Cyber Command, we can thank Grace Hopper for opening programming to millions more people, helping to usher in the information age and profoundly shaping our digital world." 

To accept the award on Hopper's behalf was her grand-niece Deborah Murray, who stood aside the president as the citation was read, "We honor her contributions to computer science and the sense of possibility she inspired for the generations of young people."

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation's highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. 

Born in New York on December 9, 1906, Hopper attended Vassar College, graduating in 1928 with a degree in mathematics before receiving masters and doctorate degrees in mathematics and physics from Yale University in 1934. 

In 1943, at the age of 37, she enlisted in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) and the following year was commissioned and assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University as a lieutenant junior grade. There, she completed groundbreaking work in computer technology, including producing a model of the electronic computer, the Mark I, and introducing the word "bug" to describe a computer malfunction.

Often referred to as the mother of computing, Hopper was instrumental in the creation of (Universal Automatic Computer) UNIVAC, the first all-electronic digital computer. She also invented the first computer compiler and founded a new program language that became a widely used framework for coding languages during the time. Hopper even forecast the future of computers as being the compact, user-friendly systems they are today.

Her achievements spanned a 43-year naval career-earning her the rank of rear admiral in 1985, a level reached by few females at the time, and adding her to the list of longest-serving officers-before officially retiring in 1989. 

Feisty. Eccentric. Maverick. Brilliant. Precise. Grace Hopper embodied all of those descriptions and more, but perhaps what defined her as much as anything else was the pride she had in wearing the Navy uniform for 43 years. In 1986, at age 79, Hopper retired “involuntarily.” 

Her retirement ceremony was held on the 188-year-old USS Constitution, the longest-serving commissioned ship in the United States Navy. Her speech reflected her interest in teaching young people. “Our young people are the future. We must provide for them. We must give them the positive leadership they’re looking for.”

She continued to work in the field of computing until her death on January 1, 1992.

Vice Admiral Jan Tighe, deputy chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare, recalled meeting Hopper as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy saying, "knowing what she had accomplished and how much the Navy valued her was an inspiration to me."

Tighe, who has described Hopper as a role model, added, "Quite simply, and on many levels, Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper is an inspiration for us all. As a pioneer in computing, as a woman leading the way in the science, technology, engineering and math field at a time when that was almost completely unheard of, and as a dedicated naval officer, she paved the way so that all of us who followed could succeed. All of us in the Information Warfare Community owe her our gratitude. The award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom is both well-earned and well deserved!" 

In 1996, the destroyer USS Hopper (DDG 70) was named in honor of the legend and in October the Naval Academy broke ground on Hopper Hall, which will house the academy's Center for Cyber Studies. 

Her other awards and decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal and Naval Reserve Medal.