President Obama gave his final State of the Union speech on Tuesday, during which he evoked the names of some truly remarkable women. Calling for a time in which America was at the continuous forefront of scientific discovery, President Obama asserted to the nation that this same "spirit of discovery is in our DNA" and that his administration has continued to nurture that spirit. This tenacity for forging out new frontiers, Obama said, is in thanks to women like Grace Hopper. Who is Grace Hopper, and what did she do to help foster this growth for America?
President Obama highlights Hopper during a segment of his speech on reigniting a passion for innovation that seemed to grip the American public during historical events like the space race. Obama hopes that this same fervor will take over the American consciousness once again.
Given Hopper's extensive career in computer programming language, inventions like hers made things like space travel possible. In highlighting this, Obama said:
Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn't deny Sputnik was up there. We didn't argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon. That spirit of discovery is in our DNA. ... We're Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. We're every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better world.
President Obama was right to give a shout out to such a remarkable woman. Born in 1906, Hopper was defying the odds of what was deemed appropriate for women since birth. She had developed a curious nature as a child, a trait that ultimately led her to receiving a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University.
After becoming an associate professor at Vassar College, Hopper requested a leave of absence in 1943 so she could enlist in the Navy during WWII. She served under the WAVES, the Navy branch that took on women as commissioned officers.
It was then in the 1950's that she built the first compiler for computers, a device that allows a computer program to transform source code from a programming language into another type of computer language. In short, this became the basis for what we now call coding. Prior to this, computers were essentially only good for completing arithmetic equations. Hopper even went on to have the U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper DDG-70 named after her.
In short, it was through Hopper's invention that America completely revolutionized the way computers were used, paving the way for their intrinsic value today. This is just the type of innovation President Obama hopes to see moving forward with the country.