Author: Kurt W. Beyer
Publisher: MIT Press, 2009
Aimed at: Anyone interested in history of computing
Pros: Well written, detailed account of major developments in computers and computing
Cons: Not a personal biography of Grace Hopper
Reviewed by: Sue Gee
Although from the title you would expect Grace Hopper to be the central character in this book, in fact it has information about many other pioneers of hardware and software and about the machines and technologies they worked. So much so that Grace hereself frequently disappears for several pages. The subtitle, "the invention of the information age", is therefore a much better handle for the book as a whole.
The opening chapter has the rather odd title, "The Myth of Amazing Grace" which might suggest that the author was about to debunk an exaggerated view of Grace' Hopper's achievements. Far from it. Kurt Beyer, a data processing expert and a former professor at the United States Naval Academy, is entirely convinced of her importance in the story his has to tell. However, after an overview and a résumé of the highlights of Grace Hopper's career he points out that she was involved in what was essentially a team effort and that for this reason what follows in the rest of the book is what he describes as a 'distributed biography'.
Chapter 2 opens with Pearl Harbor, the event on December 7th 1941 that propelled the USA into the Second World War and some of the very rare personal history contained in this book. At that time Grace Hopper was married and was a tenured professor at Vassar College. The chapter then looks briefly over the years prior to 1942 - graduate degree in mathematics, marriage to Vincent Hopper, teaching career at Vassar - before Grace joined the Navy to take part in national defense work.
Howard Aiken is introduced in Chapter 2 and in terms of personalities it is Aiken who dominates for the succeeding 100 or more pages. Here Kurt Beyer succeeds remarkably in writing yet frankly yet sympathetically about a difficult character who was seen as contentious and controversial. This he does in large part by using Grace Hopper's positive relationship with Aiken to give perspective. Many other pioneers of the information age are introduced - Eckert and Mauchly, Maurice Wilkes, John von Neumann, John Backus, both Thomas J Watsons and whenever the focus is put squarely on Grace Hopper's personal life you cannot help but think - "oh yes when I picked up this book with its photo of a glamorous woman I was expecting to read more about her life".
What you do read about is how Grace Hopper helped to shape the development of computer programming. For example her contribution to the coding system for the Mark I, the coining of the term "bug" due to her discovery of a moth in the Mark II, and her role in authoring the reports and manuals in the early days. Along the way the author successfully weaves many stories of the people involved while charting the development of the hardware and the technology and the corporate structure associated with it.
Later chapters in the book cover the post-war period and Grace Hoppers years with the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, its merger with Remington Rand, later becoming Sperry Rand. Here we learn about how Grace recognized the need to be able to interact with computer hardware at a more abstract level than machine code. The history of the early compilers, from A-0 which Grace Hopper devised on her own to the team efforts that resulted in A-2 and beyond. Again Kurt Beyer put things in the context of the bigger picture and discusses, for example, how IBM came to control the computer industry despite its leadership not being overtly interested. He reminds us how the Cold War resulted in the development of SAGE, discusses Jay Forrester's role and how the contract to IBM to build 500 Whirlwind computers shaped the development of the industry.
One thread of the story is that Grace Hopper's proposal for "Automatic Programming" was accepted at Remington Rand to compensate for a reduced workforce due to budget cuts and that sharp increase in number of programmers needed for SAGE made idea of automatic programming more difficult.
Chapter 10 provides an overview of early computer languages, showing how the AT-3 compiler was extended to become MATH-MATIC and how it used virtual memory. Here we also learn about John Backus and FORTRAN before encountering Grace Hopper's B-0 business language in which English replaced symbols which came to be called FLOW-MATIC.
The penultimate chapter has a résumé of Hopper's career in the 50s and the development of COBOL, a process described as "invention by committee". Details such as the fact that Jean Sammet and the PDQ Group wanted to use algebraic expressions and that Hopper threatened that Sperry Rand would break away from CODASYL (Conference on Data Systems and Languages made up of seven government agencies, ten computer manufacturers and eleven companies representing computer users) make for a readable history and the final chapter rounds out with a summary of her impact on the development of the technological innovation in the period up to and including the development of COBOL as both protagonist and promoter.
Although she stepped down as Director if the Automatic Programming Development at Sperry Rand in 1965 and was placed on the Naval Reserve's retirement list in 1967, Grace Hopper never retired and was working for DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) when she died at the age of 86 in 1992. This period of her life is included in the book's final chapter.
The text concludes on page 324. Beyond this are copious notes and references for each chapter and a useful index for anyone working on a paper or dissertation of their own.
If you want a detailed and sympathetic account of the development of the computer and computer programming from the 1930s, through World War II and on through the 50s, this book is highly recommended. But it is not as personal a biography as its book jacket with prominent photo suggests.
iProgrammer's history section includes an article on Grace Hopper and on many other of the inventors and inventions discussed in this book - follow the links to read more.