Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, a pioneer Navy computer programmer and co-inventor of the business language COBOL, has died at the age of 85.
She died in her sleep on Wednesday in her Arlington, Va., home, her brother, Roger F. Murray II of Wolfeboro, N.H., said Thursday.
At the time of her retirement in 1986, Hopper was the nation’s oldest active-duty military officer.
Hopper, known to her aides as “the first lady of software” and “Amazing Grace,” stayed in uniform under year-to-year extensions long after the regular retirement age of 62 to work on the Navy’s computer programs.
More recently, she was a full-time senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corp., working out of the company’s Washington office.
Admirers described Hopper as a vigorous, tireless and occasionally contrary woman with a four-page resume that included honorary degrees, awards and achievements and a healthy contempt for those unwilling to try new ideas.
“The only phrase I’ve ever disliked is, ‘Why, we’ve always done it that way,’ ” she once said. “I always tell young people, ‘Go ahead and do it. You can always apologize later.’ ”
“She has challenged at every turn the dictates of a mindless bureaucracy,” former Navy Secretary John Lehman said when he awarded her the Defense Department’s highest honor, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal for exceptional meritorious service.
Hopper, who held a doctorate degree in mathematics from Yale University, joined the Naval Reserve in December, 1943, after a decade of teaching at Vassar College and midshipman training at Smith College.
She was soon to report for duty to a basement laboratory at Harvard University, where she worked on equipment designed to figure ordnance calculations. There, she learned to program the first large-scale digital computer, the Mark I.
Her husband died in the war and she never remarried.
After the war, she remained in the Naval Reserve and joined a company that was building the Univac I, the first commercial, large-scale electronic computer. The company later merged into the Sperry Corp.
At Sperry, she worked on an idea that led to COBOL, a widely used programming language that made computers a tool for business people as well as mathematicians. She was also credited with coining the word “bug” to describe the problems that plague computers and their programs.
Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve in 1966 but was recalled a year later to impose a standard on the Navy’s many computer languages.