The Author and Her Subject: Kathleen Broome Williams on Grace Murray Hopper

May 1, 2005

Lt. Grace M. Hopper, USNR, in 1946. Photos from Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea.

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea. By Kathleen Broome Williams, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2004, 240 pages, $32.95.

It's not often that I get a chance to meet and chat with the author of a book I intend to review for SIAM News. But such was the case with military historian Kathleen Broome Williams, who teaches history at Bronx Community College (CUNY). I had read and reviewed one of her previous books, Improbable Warriors,* and we had met at a conference on mathematics and war, held in Karlskrona, Sweden, in 2002.

More recently, shortly after the publication of her biography of Grace Hopper, Williams made her way down to Grand Central Station to meet me for supper. We found a fine Irish restaurant nearby. Inspired by the broiled salmon and Murphy's Irish Stout, by what we talked about, by subsequent e-conversations, and by her biography of Hopper, I imagined interviewing her in the manner of interviews with authors that I've seen on TV. I did not tape our conversation, so that what follows here is a simulated interview, edited, quite necessarily, by Williams so as to prevent me from putting words in her mouth.


PJD: It strikes me as improbable--to use an adjective that you used in the title of one of your books--that a woman has become a military historian. How did this come about?
KBW: Perhaps it all started because my father served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II and I grew up looking at his citation and the photograph of him in uniform that hung on my brother's bedroom wall. I always wanted to understand what it was all about.

PJD: What sort of a man was your father?
KBW: I never knew him. He was wounded on the island of Saipan in 1944, during the struggle against the Japanese in WW II, and was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism in combat. From Saipan he was evacuated to Hawaii, and from there to the Naval hospital nearest his home in Virginia, which was Bethesda. He arrived there on the day I was born, and he died in January 1945 of the wounds he'd sustained. I was only three months old then.

PJD: When did you first consider yourself a military historian?
KBW: Really, military history has been my field of interest for as long as I can remember--certainly back to my early childhood. You know, as children in London after the war, my brother and I used to play war games among the bombed out buildings.

Years later, at Wellesley, I wrote an honors thesis on the reform of the British Army in the 1870s. At Columbia, I wrote a master's thesis on Palmerston's defense policy. My PhD from CUNY was in military history. And my first book, Secret Weapon,† is about the U.S. Navy's use of High Frequency Direction Finding during the Battle of the Atlantic. This is the story--much neglected--of how HF–DF (called Huff–Duff) played a major and successful role in overcoming the German U-boats in the Atlantic. Huff–Duff helped Navy ships and aircraft pinpoint the subs' location.

PJD: Tell me, how did you get onto Grace Hopper?
KBW: After Secret Weapon came out, the only research grant I could find was one for research about women. I knew there had been women working in Navy labs in World War II, so I accepted the grant and started looking for them. I soon found many women at the technician level and also a number of women scientists and mathematicians with PhDs working in Navy technology at much higher levels. I also cast a wider net and included women who, though they remained civilians, made extraordinary contributions to Navy science and technology during World War II. This resulted in my book Improbable Warriors. The focus of the book is on the wartime careers of the scientists and mathematicians Mary Sears, Florence van Straten, Mina Rees, and Grace Hopper. I don't suppose you'd heard of the first two women.

PJD: Until I read Improbable Warriors, I hadn't.
KBW: Well, they were all prominent in different ways.

PJD: Your description of Grace is largely of a person who exerted a great influence on the development of the digital computer in its early days. I can think of other women, Grace's contemporaries, a bit older and much less prominent than Grace, whose contributions to computation, though different, may have equaled hers.
KBW: I'm sure you can.

PJD: Women's contributions to computers go back as far as Ada Byron, Countess Lovelace, in the 1840s. Ada has become a feminist icon. A young colleague of mine in computer science, a woman, said to me recently: "After Ada came Grace Hopper, with nothing in between." But actually, I was thinking of the pioneering women in computers and numerical analysis whom I knew from my days at the National Bureau of Standards. Among them: Ida Rhodes, Gertrude Blanch, and Irene Stegun. These were three women whose careers straddled two periods, from when the word "computer" meant a person who did computations to when a computer became a piece of electronic hardware. Have you heard of them? Citing these three, of course, is to neglect dozens.
KBW: I mention many talented women in my book, but I hadn't heard of these three. Tell me about them.

PJD: Well, after college, in the late 1930s, Gertrude Blanch joined the WPA Mathematical Tables Project in New York City. All in all, this group produced almost three dozen volumes of important mathematical tables. Today, math tables have become fairly obsolete, replaced by chips, Web sites, etc.

During World War II, Blanch and the other people from the Math Tables Project worked for the Applied Mathematics Panel of the OSRD [Office of Scientific Research and Development]. She went later to the Institute for Numerical Analysis at UCLA, which was a western branch of the mathematics section of the Bureau of Standards. She published many papers on numerical analysis and special functions. She was given the Federal Woman's Award.

Ida Rhodes was a pioneer in the analysis of systems of programming. In the early 1950s, she designed the C-10 language for the UNIVAC I, the computer system the Census Bureau used. Rhodes also designed the first computer system used by the Social Security Administration. She was one of the first to attempt a computer translation from Russian to English. She got an Exceptional Service Gold Medal.

As regards Irene Stegun, she became assistant chief of the Computation Laboratory at the National Bureau of Standards. Hundreds of thousands of people have bought The Handbook of Mathematical Functions, a.k.a. Abramowitz and Stegun, and perhaps a million people have consulted it. They have certainly seen her name and probably wondered who she was. But let's get back to Grace.
KBW: I know there are many other women whose stories have not been told adequately, and I hope they, too, will be rescued from obscurity. At the conference in Karlskrona, the names of several female European scientists came up. There are Web sites devoted to the careers of some of these women, so perhaps they will receive more recognition now.

PJD: Yes, the work of those who achieve prominence and get into the limelight is based on the unsung work of thousands. I know that sounds corny and sententious, but it's true. Newton is often quoted as saying that he stood on the shoulders of giants. Giants, of course, stand on the shoulders of many thousands of others. The three women I just mentioned had careers that overlapped with Grace's. They were actually older contemporaries of hers.
KBW: In Grace's later years, she was mostly engaged in promoting Navy computing. Her most innovative and creative work had come earlier, when she was a civilian with UNIVAC.

PJD: Your biography goes into considerable detail about such things as the development of COBOL and her Navy career. If I asked you for a thumbnail sketch of Grace, what would you say?
KBW: People who have heard of Grace think she created COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language). This is one of the many myths that have grown up around her. In fact, she was only part of the group that developed it, although it was largely based on an early programming language that she herself had developed. Anyway, Grace is now a legend, and legends beget myths. She was a strong and tireless advocate---an early advocate---for computing and for getting women into computing. She was born in New York City in 1906. She went to Vassar and then got a PhD in mathematics from Yale in 1934. She did her thesis under Professor Oystein Ore.

With the UNIVAC circa 1962.

PJD: As I recall, Ore worked in abstract algebra and number theory.
KBW: Afterward, Grace taught math at Vassar. When the United States entered WW II, she wanted to join the Navy. Her great-grandfather had been an admiral in the Navy, you know. He fought all the way from the Barbary Pirates in the early 1800s to Mobile Bay in the Civil War. Anyway, Grace got into Mid-shipman's School: She was then 37. She was commissioned as a lieutenant (j.g.), and in the summer of 1944 she was assigned to the Mark I computer project at Harvard; this was Howard Aiken's brainchild, taken over by the Navy for the duration of the war.

PJD: Which is where I met up with her, so to speak, in the fall of 1946. Aiken had a group of people working in his Computation Laboratory as programmers; in those days they were called coders. Ensign Dick Bloch, a classmate of mine, was one of them. Another coder was Constance Franklin, Norbert Wiener's sister. Yet another was Jake Horowitz, a friend of mine from my NACA days. I saw Grace once or twice when she was working there, but I never met her. How about you? Did you know her?
KBW: No. I never met her, unfortunately. She had died before I began the project. At Harvard, this Navy assignment introduced her to, and then lured her into, the newly created field of computers and computation. She stayed with this field for the rest of her career. At the start she knew nothing about computing; she had to pick it all up from scratch, as did the other young mathematicians assigned to work at the lab. Grace wrote the first manual of operations for the Mark I. The Mark I was among the few automatically sequenced digital computers to play a role in the war, and the only one in America. It was run around the clock and crunched out essential data for all sorts of ordnance projects: making complex calculations for Navy guns, acoustic and magnetic mines, self-propelled rockets, and the atomic bomb.

PJD: And after the experience with Aiken?
KBW: In 1946 Grace was demobilized, but she remained in the Naval Reserve and continued to work with Aiken at Harvard. Then, in 1949, she joined the Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation, which later became Remington–Rand. She worked on the UNIVAC there. She headed the team that developed FLOW-MATIC, which later became the basis for COBOL. In 1967 she was recalled to active duty in the Navy, and she stayed in until 1986. She was then 79 and had risen to the rank of Rear Admiral.

PJD: Hence the title of your book.
KBW: Yes, although she was widely known by another name: "Amazing Grace."

PJD: A section of your book is devoted to the difficulties Grace experienced in trying to push through changes in a large bureaucracy. I found it particularly pertinent in view of the current difficulties in getting Congress to adopt the changes suggested by the 9/11 Commission. The Pentagon is crucially involved in these changes.
KBW: Yes, Grace displayed unusual tact and persistence in cutting through the difficulties posed by red tape and high-ranking officers resistant to change.

PJD: I'm familiar principally with university bureaucracies. There's a saying in the teaching business that it's easier to move a graveyard than to change a curriculum. Have you had any experience there?
KBW: Yes, but I wouldn't want to be quoted on it.

PJD: Reading your book, I got the feeling that Grace Hopper was a great self-advertiser and, in her later years, a real publicity hound. What do you think of this assessment?
KBW: I'm sorry you got that impression. She never had to be a self-advertiser, nor did she need to go after publicity, because she just naturally attracted it. Of course, that's not to say that she was averse to recognition. Because of her gender, her age, her stature, and her outspokenness, she was a magnet for the media. They could always count on her for a good interview. I've looked at a hundred interviews that she gave in her later years; by then she was making between two and three hundred speeches a year, and appearing on radio and on television as well. But that was her job. She was the Navy's best recruiter--and they even gave her an award saying as much. However, she never took credit away from anyone else. She was always very loyal to those she worked with and very generous in giving praise and credit for the work of others, particularly women. And she never overestimated her own accomplishments.

PJD: I don't think I'd have liked her as a person. And I'm not sure why. What's your impression of her?
KBW: As her biographer, I certainly admire and respect her. She was supremely pragmatic, unstoppably innovative, and a superb manager. She also had a great sense of humor. Almost everyone who ever worked for her was devoted to her, which says something very important about her character.

PJD: Your book contains a great deal of historical and technical details about computers. You digested it all "with the bones and the beak/Pray, how did you manage to do it?" Did you have some previous training in computers?
KBW: No training whatsoever. The only science course I ever took was general science when I was about 12! In fact, I feel pathetically unqualified to write about technology and so I'm grateful for your appreciation. I think it's because I know so little that I have to reduce what I read to its most simple statement, and that helps me to keep it clear in my own mind.

PJD: I've noticed that in myself. I often learn more about recent developments in mathematics from skilled scientific journalists or popularizers than I do from the original work. After reading your book, I came to the conclusion that Grace's principal talent was that of a catalyst. Would you agree with this judgment?
KBW: Grace would probably consider that a fair assessment. The same could be said even more fittingly of Mina Rees, who really made no mathematical contributions but did make great contributions to the support and practice of mathematical research.

PJD: I knew Mina slightly. Our relationship was always cordial.
KBW: Catalyst, yes. But listen, Grace's early insights about computer languages were important, and her role in COBOL was ground-breaking.

PJD: I take it that there are a lot of Hopper "this's and that's."
KBW: Both during her life and after, she received gratifying recognition of her work. Perhaps most important, the Navy named a high-tech Aegis guided missile destroyer for her: USS Hopper. There's also the Grace Hopper Service Center at the San Diego Naval Base. There are Grace Hopper Scholarships, and there are periodic "Grace Hopper Celebrations of Women in Computing."

PJD: As a historian and a biographer, you've made extensive use of books, archives, letters, oral histories, interviews, and so forth. I've been engaged as an interviewer in an ongoing SIAM project to tape oral histories in my field, numerical analysis and methods of scientific computation. In conducting future interviews, what should I go after particularly?
KBW: Well, you certainly should go after color.

PJD: What do you mean exactly by color?
KBW: I mean everything and anything you can't get by reading the official stuff: archival sources, the CVs, Who's Who stuff, encyclopedia writeups, the technical papers. A biographer should convey personality, character, motivation---what, down deep, makes one individual's experiences differ from those of the next.

PJD: What's a piece of Hopper color?
KBW: Here's a story that Grace herself liked to tell. One afternoon when she was young, she shoved off from the dock in her little sail canoe. A gust of wind capsized the canoe. Her mother, watching from the shore, yelled out to her, "Remember your great-grandfather the Admiral." Grace heard the admonition, clung to the canoe, and kicked it back to the dock.

PJD: And I suppose that clinging became the leitmotiv of her career. Another piece of color?
KBW: Grace was apparently unmoved by the anti-smoking campaign. She continued to smoke more than a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes a day until near her death at the age of 86. She just brushed off the statistics.

PJD: The famous geneticist and mathematical statistician R.A. Fisher also smoked away and even produced a study that pooh-poohed all the warnings against "the filthy habit."

Back to Grace, she tried early on, as you've written, to get women into the computer field. I recently heard from Pamela McCorduck, who is all gung ho for computers and writes books on the subject, that the numbers of women in computing are shockingly low, both in academia and in business. After peaking in the 1980s (when women accounted for nearly a third of computer science students), the numbers have dropped precipitately. Women are staying away in droves. This issue has been studied and studied, but nobody seems to know what to do about it.
KBW: As far as women no longer going into computing, from all I've seen, that's quite true. A couple of years ago, I reviewed a sociological study of one computing company in the UK.‡

Although fairly narrow, the study seems to demonstrate very clearly the generally hostile work environment that computing has become for women, even in a company that was receptive to women and thought it was doing a good job of accommodating them.

PJD: As a military historian, how do you feel about war?
KBW: Should military historians feel differently about war than anyone else? War is hell, as everyone knows who has served in one. For those of us who have not experienced war first hand, the more we study it the more we understand how dreadful it is. But that's not a reason to shy away from examining the problem. Cancer researchers do not study cancer because they like it. Military historians are no different.

PJD: And the role of science in war?
KBW: The role of science in war is one of the things I try to come to grips with in my writing. It's important that we understand this relationship. So I think that there should be more Karlskrona-type conferences--here in the USA.

PJD: What's the next book on your plate?
KBW: I'm writing a memoir about my father. I'm trying to discover the spirit that moved him. There is a trove of letters he wrote to my mother. When he died, my mother was 23 and had two small children. I'll cover his whole life, but my major focus will be on his wartime service. I want to tell the story of what happens in war and try to find out how it is that men go out to face death.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at

* Improbable Warriors: Women Scientists and the U.S Navy in World War II, Naval Institute Press, 2001. The review, "Wars Change Lives," was published in SIAM News in March 2002.

† Naval Institute Press, 1996.

‡ Ruth Woodfield, Women, Work and Computing, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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