Sorry to bug you: Grace Hopper

by Peter W McOwan and Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

(from the archive)

Close up head on of a flying butterfly or moth

In the 2003 film The Matrix Reloaded, Neo, Morpheus, Trinity and crew continue their battle with the machines that have enslaved the human race in the virtual reality of the Matrix. To find the Oracle, who can explain what’s going on (which, given the twisty plot in the Matrix films, is always a good idea), Trinity needs to break into a power station and switch off some power nodes so the others can enter the secret floor. The computer terminal displays that she is disabling 27 power nodes, numbers 21 to 48. Unfortunately, that’s actually 28 nodes, not 27! A computer that can’t count and shows the wrong message!

Sadly, there are far too many programs with mistakes in them. These mistakes are known as bugs because back in 1945 Grace Hopper, one of the female pioneers of computer science, found an error caused by a moth trapped between the points at Relay 70, Panel F, of the Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator being tested at Harvard University. She removed the moth, and attached it to her test logbook, writing ‘First actual case of bug being found’, and so popularised the term ‘debugging’ for testing and fixing a computer program.

Grace Hopper is famous for more than just the word ‘bug’ though. She was one of the most influential of the early computer pioneers, responsible for perhaps the most significant idea in helping programmers to write large, bug-free programs.

As a Lieutenant in the US Navy reserves, having volunteered after Pearl Harbor, Grace was one of three of the first programmers of Harvard’s IBM Mark I computer. It was the first fully automatic programmed computer.

She didn’t just program those early computers though, she came up with innovations in the way computers were programmed. The programs for those early computers all had to be made up of so-called ‘machine instructions’. These are the simplest operations the computer can do: such as to add two numbers, move data from a place in memory to a register (a place where arithmetic can be done in a subsequent operation), jump to a different instruction in the program, and so on.

Programming in such basic instructions is a bit like giving someone directions to the station but having to tell them exactly where to put their foot for every step. Grace’s idea was that you could write programs in a language closer to human language where each instruction in this high-level language stood for lots of the machine instructions – equivalent to giving the major turns in those directions rather than every step.

The ultimate result was COBOL: the first widely used high-level programming language. At a stroke her ideas made programming much easier to do and much less error-prone. Big programs were now a possibility.

For this idea of high-level languages to work though you needed a way to convert a program written in a high-level language like COBOL into those machine instructions that a computer can actually do. It can’t fill in the gaps on its own! Grace had the answer – the ‘compiler’. It is just another computer program, but one that does a specialist task: the conversion. Grace wrote the first ever compiler, for a language called A-O, as well as the first COBOL compiler. The business computing revolution was up and running.

High-level languages like COBOL have allowed far larger programs to be written than is possible in machine-code, and so ultimately the expansion of computers into every part of our lives. Of course even high-level programs can still contain mistakes, so programmers still need to spend most of their time testing and debugging. As the Oracle would no doubt say, “Check for moths, Trinity, check for moths”.

More on …

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EPSRC supports this blog through research grant EP/W033615/1, and through EP/K040251/2 held by Professor Ursula Martin. 

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