Ada Lovelace Day and Amazing Grace

Published in Professional Development on Mar 24, 2010

So, if you hadn't already heard, today is Ada Lovelace Day. If you aren't familiar with it, it's is an internationally observed event during which its participants use blogs, podcasts, videos, and all other forms of internet media to celebrate the achievements of women in the fields of technology and science. Read more about the event and its namesake or take a look at this timeline of major female figures in computing from its beginnings with Ada Lovelace to present day.

Many people choose a friend or colleague who's helped them to excel in the field. I myself have a number I could name, but with this being the first year I'm participating, I chose instead to veer from the beaten path and write this blog post about someone I've admired since I began serious study of computer science in high school. The very first computer science course I took began with a unit on the history of the field. Among the other Big Names included in that unit was that of Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Hopper, also sometimes referred to as “Amazing Grace.” And did she ever live up to that name.

The first reason I admire Grace is because she was no stranger to failure or perseverence. When she applied to Vassar College at the age of 16, she was rejected because her test scores in Latin did not meet admission requirements. She persisted and was admitted the following year, going on to earn a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics from Vassar College and a Master's degree from Yale. She would eventually return to Vassar to share her knowledge as an associate professor of mathematics.

While my own academic achievements are an understated far cry from hers, I relate to this quality because it took a large amount of persistence for me to complete my own degree, partly due to my admittedly lacking abilities in mathematics as compared to the requirements of the curriculum under which I graduated. I struggled, had to retake several classes due to not meeting grade requirements, but persevered and earned the degree that hangs on my wall today.

The second reason I admire Grace is the magnitude of her aspirations. In a time period when not all colleges in the country accepted women, women were mainly relegated to “lace-collar jobs” in the workforce, and the right to suffrage for women had not yet been won, Grace chose to pursue her education in a field that to this day is still predominantly occupied by men. Not only did she participate in the field, she excelled in it, contributing to technological breakthroughs that literally became the stuff of legend and the foundation for the technology that we enjoy today. Hers is truly a story for the history books, one of defying stereotypes and overcoming adversities of society to achieve something spectacular.

The final reason that I admire and even envy Grace is her contributions to the innovations of her era. In 1944, during her service in the US Navy Reserve, she served on the programming staff for the Harvard Mark I, the first large-scale automatic digital computer in the country, and coauthored papers on it and its two successors. In 1949, she became senior mathematician for the team that developed the UNIVAC I, the first commercially available computer in the country. The work she did between 1950 and 1980 resulted in the first compiler, an accomplishment to which many professional software developers today owe their livelihood. In the 1970s, she pioneered standards for testing computer components and systems for which administration would later be assumed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She was right there in the thick of the industry's beginnings, making contributions that would echo in the decades to come.

Sadly, Grace passed away six years before I came to know the significance of her accomplishments to my future career and the technological state of the entire world. She was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery on January 1, 1992. I regret never having had the chance to shake her hand and tell her in person all that you've read here just now. So Grace, I salute and thank you for the immense impact that your life and service have had on the planet you left behind. No matter where technology may take our race in the generations to come, I sincerely hope that they carry your memory with them.