The Younger Years of Grace Murray Hopper

Computer Pioneer Grew Up Loving Math

Computer programming pioneer Grace Murray Hopper was born on December 9, 1906 in New York City. How did her childhood and early years contribute to her brilliant career?

She was the oldest of three children. Her sister Mary was three years younger and her brother Roger was five years younger than Grace. She fondly recalled the happy summers playing typical childhood games together at a cottage on Lake Wentworth in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

Still, she thought that she took the blame too often for mischieve the children and their cousins got into on vacation. Once, she lost her swimming privileges for a week for instigating them to climb a tree. Besides playing outdoors, she also learned crafts such as needlepoint and cross-stitch. She enjoyed reading and learned to play the piano.

Hopper liked to tinker with gadgets and find out how they worked. At age seven she was curious about how her alarm clocked worked. But when she took it apart, she was unable to put it back together. She continued taking apart seven alarm clocks, to the displeasure of her mother, who limited her to taking apart just one.

Math Talent Runs in the Family

Her father, Walter Fletcher Murray, and paternal grandfather were insurance brokers, a profession which makes use of statistics. Grace's mother, Mary Campbell Van Horne Murray, loved math and went along on surveying trips with her father, John Van Horne, who was a senior civil engineer for the city of New York.

While it wasn't proper at that time for a young lady to take an interest in math, she was allowed to study geometry but not algebra or trigonometry. It was acceptable to use math to keep household finances in order, but that was all. Mary learned to understand the family's finances because feared her husband would die from his health problems.

He lived to be 75.

Father Encourages Education

Hopper credited her father for encouraging her to step beyond the usual feminine role, have ambition and get a good education. He wanted his girls to have the same opportunities as his boy. He wanted them to be self-sufficient since he wouldn't be able to leave them much of an inheritance.

Grace Murray Hopper attended  private schools in New York City where the curriculum focused on teaching girls to be ladies. But she was able to play sports at school, including basketball, field hockey and water polo.

She wanted to enter Vassar College at age 16, but failed the Latin exam, She had to be a boarding student for a year until she was able to enter Vassar at age 17 in 1923.

Entering the Navy

Hopper was considered too old, at age 34, to join the military after the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II. But as a mathematics professor, her skills were a critical need for the military. While Navy officials said she should serve as a civilian, she was determined to enlist. She took a leave of absence from her teaching position at Vassar and had to get a waiver because she was underweight for her height. With her determination, she was sworn into the U.S. Navy Reserve in December 1943.

She would serve for 43 years.

Next: ​The Invention of the Mark I Computer - Howard Aiken & Grace Hopper

Source: Elizabeth Dickason, The Department of the Navy Information Technology Magazine

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Bellis, Mary. "The Younger Years of Grace Murray Hopper." ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2016, thoughtco.com/the-younger-years-of-grace-murray-hopper-4077488. Bellis, Mary. (2016, August 23). The Younger Years of Grace Murray Hopper. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-younger-years-of-grace-murray-hopper-4077488 Bellis, Mary. "The Younger Years of Grace Murray Hopper." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-younger-years-of-grace-murray-hopper-4077488 (accessed October 23, 2017).