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Innovations and Risk-Taking -- Views on the Future of the Computer Industry from Captain Grace Hopper, Computer Pioneer

by Richard Seltzer, from DECWORLD, the company newspaper, July 1983


Proud and feisty, Captain Grace Hopper talked about computers as she has known them since 1944 and as common sense tells her they should be in the future. She told of how she leads her small Navy crew of programmers, educates her bosses in the Pentagon, and haunts anyone who says, "But we've always done it that way." The Digital audience, convened at the invitation of the Communications Industry Group in Merrimack, NH, to hear "thought on innovation," responded to her non-stop hour and a half barrage of wit and wisdom with a standing ovation. The following article is based on her remarks.


"Typically, people make plans for the use of computers based on what they are doing now and the equipment they have now. They fail to review those plans int he light of what they will be doing and the equipment that will be available in the future.  This is a critical review that has to be made of every plan, no matter what you're doing.


"Probably the most dangerous phrase that can be used in any computer installation is, 'But we've always done it that way.' That phrase is forbidden in my office. To emphasize that fact, I keep a clock that operates counter-clockwise. The first day, you have a little trouble telling time. By the second day, most people have discovered that what used to be 10 of is now 10 after. By the third day, they recognize there was never any reason why clocks had to run clockwise.


I'd like to give each one of you a small gift. If during the next 12 months anyone of you says 'But we've always done it that way,' I will instantly materialize beside you and haunt you for 24 hours. I know it works because I've already had over a hundred letters thanking me for haunting people. We can no longer afford to use that phrase.


"We've got to take chances, try new things and move towards the future. We've also got to recognize that's not going to be easy. But if you let yourself get frustrated, you're licked from day one.


"Once, an officer who had to take his squadron out to an aircraft carrier was told he'd have to leave all his maintenance records in the Naval Air Rework Facility. Well, this didn't please him. He wanted the maintenance records for his planes with him. So he bought a personal computer, made friends with a programmer who could copy his maintenance records onto it, put the computer into a case that could fit behind his seat, and flew off to the carrier with all of his maintenance records in the computer.  When he came back, he told the Department of Defense Computer Institute about it. Somebody there said, "Are you supposed to do that?" He said, "I didn't ask."


"Remember, on many occasions, it's much easier to apologize than it is to get permission. A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for. We've got to sail the sea, because that's what ships are built for."


Next Generation -- Systems of Computers


Grace recalled her first encounter with a computer, MARKI, the world's first large scale digital computer, on July2, 1944. "It was 51 feet long, 8 feet high, 8 feet deep, in a magnificent glass case. It had 72 words of storage and could do 3 additions a second. It would get two quantities from memory, add them together and put the answer back three times a second or once every 333 milliseconds (thousandths of a second). That sounds pitiful today, but it was the first tool that assisted the power of man's brain instead of the strength of his arm.


"Not until 1951 was there a commercial electronic computer -- UNIVAC I. It had a thousand 12-character words of storage. In other words, UNIVACI was a 12k microcomputer, but it ran all the premium notices for Metropolitan Life. (We seem to have forgotten what a dedicated computer can do.) It did an addition in 282 microseconds -- a thousand times faster.


"By 1964, the first of the CDC 6400s came out. It could do an addition in 300 nanoseconds, 300 billionths of a second -- another thousand times faster.


"Now, we need a system that adds in 300 picoseconds, trillionths of a second -- another thousand times faster. We need it right now, but we can't build it the way we've been building the dinosaurs of the past. We're going to have to do something different.


"We need it because we're soon going to have to face some major problems. The population of the world is increasing, so we have to increase food and water supplies. The biggest assist to increasing food supplies would be better long-term weather forecasts. We don't yet have a computer which can run the full scale model of that big heat engine made up of earth, atmosphere and ocean. We're not even sure of our techniques because we've never had the computer power to run it. Up until a few years ago, we didn't have the data to feed into those models. But now we have satellite photographs that when fully enhanced by computer enable us to tell how high the waves are in the middle of the Pacific and what the temperature of the ocean is 20 feet below the surface. But to fully enhance a satellite photograph takes ten to the fifteenth power (one quadrillion) arithmetic operations. That takes close to 3 days on our best computers today.


"We're going to have trouble getting the powerful new computers we need because we're reaching the physi8cal limit of the speed of light or electricity. Think of a length of wire. In a microsecond (millionth of a second) electricity can go 984 feet.  In a nanosecond, a billionth of a second, it goes 11.8 inches. In a picosecond (trillionth of a second), the distance it goes is no bigger than the little pieces you get from chopping something up in a pepper grinder.


"I said I wanted to add in 300 picoseconds, a third of a nanosecond. But electricity doesn't go fast enough to cover the distance in a computer from memory to adder with the numbers to be added and then back to memory with the answer in that short a time. So what can I do? I can't wait for our bright young engineers to find some way to get beyond the velocity of light. I need that computer in the next five years.


"Back in the early days of this country, when heavy objects had to be moved around, people used oxen. When they had a big log that one ox couldn't budge, they didn't try to grow a bigger ox. They used 2 oxen. Likewise, when you need greater computer power, you don't have to build a larger computer; you can get another computer.


:Long ago we should have recognized that the answer is not to build bigger and bigger mainframes, but to build systems of computers. That is where the future lies.


:One such system is being put together at NASA.  It consists of 128 by 128 processors (chips). That 16,384 processors all in one system. We think it's going to be as big as MARK I. There's one cabinet that holds the processors, a second cabinet holds the input/output and control and a third cabinet that's a PDP-11/34, because obviously, you can't run 16,000 computers without having a computer to do it with.


:Each of those processors will receive one pixel (small piece of graphic information) from the satellite photographs, including position, color, brightness.  It will be used to hunt for oil and minerals. That's the largest integrated system of computers that I know of so far.


"You're going to see more and more systems of computers in business applications as well.  Inventory and payroll don't belong on the same computer. We put them together because we could only afford one computer, but that is no longer true. It doesn't matter whether the computers are all in one room or spread all over the world.  We now have the communications and the software to have those computers work together.


"I'm deeply grateful to every manufacturer of micro and minicomputers because my guess is that's the real future. The micros, the minis, the communications.


"We're only at the beginning of this industry, at the Model-T stage. We're at the stage of that first airplane that I flew in 1924, built out of linen and wood and wire, a biplane with an open cockpit. It went up about 150 feet and floated along about 80 miles an hour. We haven't got the jets yet, we're only at the beginning.  The future is up ahead of us."


Portrait of a Pioneer


Grace Hopper, a Captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve, likes to be introduced as the third programmer on the first large scale digital computer so she "can remind you that the first large scale digital computer was a Navy computer, operated by Navy crew in World War II."


In the early 1950s she was instrumental in developing the first compiler -- the software that made it possible to communicate with a computer in words rather than numbers and to have a computer do more than just arithmetic.  Her efforts led to the development and widespread use of COBOL and other high level computer languages.


At the age of 60, on December 1966, the 'saddest day' of her life, she was officially place on the Naval Reserve Retired List.  Then just a few months later, she was called back for six months of temporary active duty, her assignment: to standardize the high level languages and get the whole Navy to use them. As she put it, "So far, it's the longest 6 months I ever spent in my life." Today [1983] she's still working on that task and, in other ways, letting the armed forces and the U.S. government know how they can use common sense to eliminate waste in their vast data processing operations.


She concluded her talk to the Communications Industry Group by saying "I've had such a happy time the last 15 years. It's been busy, challenging. I have loved every minute of it. I have also received most of the honors that are given to anyone in the computer industry. Each time I have received one, I've thanked them, then told them, as I tell you: I have already received the highest award I will ever receive, no matter how long I live, no matter how many more jobs I have. And that has been the privilege and responsibility of serving very proudly in the United States Navy."



Captain Grace Hopper, U.S. Naval Reserve, computer pioneer. After she retired from the Navy in 1966, the Navy called her back and she worked for them for another 20 years, finally retiring in 1986, at the age of 80.  Then she went to work for DEC as a consultant, until her death in 1992.

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