Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A Compiler, A Bug and Nanosecond Wires

Being a female in a male dominated environment has never daunted me. I have always got along well with guys and, truth be told, generally prefer working with them. However, I always get excited when I hear about women who have played pivotal roles in Engineering and Technology, so when I was going through a free computer science course from Udacity and the legendary Grace Hopper was mentioned, I just had to find out more about her and her contribution to computer science.

In my quick searches, I came to find out that this incredible woman was a pioneer in the computer sciences and was always striving to achieve more. She was born in New York City on December 9th, 1906 and was encouraged by her father from an early age to pursue her passions. 

You can read more about her incredible history in the sources below if you're interested (I won't repeat what is already out there). I will however, highlight a few things from Grace's life:

  • As a child, took apart all the clocks in her house to see how they worked
  • PhD from Yale University
  • Associate Professor at Vasser College
  • Joined the United States Naval Reserve in 1943 at the age of 37
  • Designed the first working compiler for computer programs
  • Was part of a team that designed one of the first programming languages, COBOL
  • Credited with popularising the use of the word 'bug' in reference to computer programs
  • Was awarded the position of rear admiral in the US Navy
  • Used to walk around with Nano-seconds and hand them out to people
The reason that I'm so excited about this woman, is due to the fact that, by designing and creating a working compiler, she made programming accessible to the man on the street. If you think about how much of our daily life involves something that is programmed (think of microwaves, washing machines, cars, computers, gate remotes, cell phones...), it's mindblowing! She really has helped to shape how our world today works.

For those of you who don't know much about computers - a compiler is something that takes a programming language that is easily written and understood by humans and translates this language into another language that is easily understood by machines. 

You can almost imagine a compiler as a translator between two people at a dinner party who can't speak each others language, but who both need each other to perform and react to certain pieces of information. As long as your compiler doesn't translate like this guy here, you'll be able to do incredible things with your programs! 

It took years for her ideas on compilers to be accepted by the wider computer science community, but once they were accepted they really did revolutionise the way that computer science progressed!

For those of you who image an actual creepy-crawly creature when you think of the word bug when someone is speaking computer-geek to you that you don't quite understand, rest assured that your imagination is actually correct! The term was used to reference the root cause of an error in the Mark II computer, when a moth was found inside one of the relays (an electronic component) of the computer.

Lastly, I'm sure you've been wondering what in the world a Nano-second is?! It seems that Grace wanted to be able to refer physical references to abstract concepts. This 11.8 inch wire is the distance that the speed of light can travel in 1 nano-second. It is also the maximum distance that a signal can travel in a vacuum! Grace used to keep a bunch of these wires in her handbag and hand them out when she was lecturing, to help illustrate her point more clearly.

I'm only at the beginning of my search for more information on Grace Hopper, if anyone has any interesting books or websites to recommend, they would be most welcome. And I will post updates on other interesting sources of information to this inspirational lady as I find them!

Yale Website
Navy History 
Cyber Heroes

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