Tuesday, 24 March 2009

In honour of Ada Lovelace Day, a post about Grace Hopper

I know I should blog about Ada Lovelace today, in honour of Ada Lovelace day. But I've actually always been more of a fan of Grace Hopper.

Here's why:

When I was just a wee girl my Dad bought a computer. My brother and I started writing little programs for it in BASIC and Dad thought that was pretty cool. To encourage me to keep it up, he told me a story about a lady long ago (ie, before I was born) who had been one of the very first computer programmers, and since he was an electronics engineer he told me his favourite story about her: the visible nanosecond.

Computer scientists are pretty fond of analogies. Car analogies, usually, but anything will do. The reason for this is that so much of what we do is in our heads, intangible, can't be touched or smelt or seen. I use analogies all the time. Admiral Grace Hopper, came up with a beauty: a wire "one nanosecond" long. She got a real wire, and worked out how far electricity could flow along it in a nanosecond, and chopped it off to that length - about a foot. A coil of wire nearly a thousand feet long became a microsecond. A speck of pepper became a picosecond.

A bit of tutuing around in Excel tells me that the exact length of that nanosecond-wire was 29.98cm. The microsecond wire was 299.8 metres long, and a length of wire one second long would be 299,792,450m - which would wrap nearly 7.5 times around the Earth.

I think she chose the right fraction of a second to make into wire.

Admiral Hopper did other cool things too, which had a more significant effect on the world and on me. She pretty much invented compilers in the 1950s, for example, which made it possible to program computers in something sort of like English, which in turn made it possible for a nine-year-old girl in Auckland to learn BASIC in the 1980s and wind up in IT in the 21st century.

She's also credited with my favourite axiom: "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."

More detail here and here . Tell your daughters.


Morgan said...

She's also credited with my favourite axiom: "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."

It always sounded like something a boy would come up with. :)

Tim McKenzie said...

Tell your sons, too. Why shouldn't they also look up to Grace Hopper as an inspiration?

Carolyn said...

@Tim: absolutely! tell all of your children. And other people's children too.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

I love stories about what got people excited about the thing they do every day.