The feature of being easier to write than assembly is often seen as the biggest advantage of high-level programming languages. The other benefit that comes with them is portability. With high-level languages, algorithms can be developed independently from the underlying hardware. This allows software to live on once the hardware becomes obsolete.
The compiler was a concept that was met with resistance when it was first introduced. This was at a time when computers were custom-built machines bearing individual names like ENIAC, UNIVAC and Mark I. A time when the global demand for computers was estimated to be around five units by the CEO of IBM. In this scenario, it took a visionary to foresee a future where the number of computers would outgrow the number of programmers and hardware would evolve so much faster than software that a compiler would make sense. One visionary was [Grace Hopper].
Continue reading “Disrupting The Computer Industry Before it Existed: Rear Admiral Grace Hopper”
Somewhat hidden among athletes, actors, and musicians, three giants of technology have been aptly named as 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients. Grace Hopper, Margaret Hamilton, and Richard Garwin all made significant contributions to the technology that envelops our lives and embody the quest for knowledge and life-long self learning that we’d like to see in everyone.
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper’s legacy lies with the origins of computer science. She wrote the first compiler. In a time when computers were seen more as calculating machines than easily adaptable frameworks she looked to the future and made it happen. She continued to make huge contributions with lasting effect in developing COBOL, unit testing methods for programmers, and in education. We have long loved her explanation of a nanosecond (and why software engineers shouldn’t waste cycles) and was one of the first to program on the Harvard Mark I which can still be seen in the lobby of the school’s engineering building.
As Director of Apollo Flight Computer Programming, Margaret Hamilton is the driving force behind the software of Apollo. When the program started, she was Director of Software Engineering at MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. Originally there wasn’t a plan or budget for software in the space program. Hamilton built the program and led the team who wrote the software and turned it into punch cards to be fed into the computer. We enjoyed reading about some of her adventures during the Apollo project, her drive to develop pristine code is palpable. Over the past year we’ve marveled at the rope memory of the Apollo Guidance Computer and delighted when a hardcopy of AGC software showed up at a party. Her legacy at having written the code for the first portable computer — one that happened to land on the moon and return home safely — is incredible.
Physicist Richard Garwin’s name is most associated with the first hydrogen bomb design. But another part of his work is more likely to have directly touched your life: his research into spin-echo magnetic resonance helped lead to the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging. MRIs have of course become a fundamental tool in medicine. Garwin studied under Fermi during his doctoral work — you may remember Fermi from our look at the Fermiac analog computer last year.
Congratulations to these three recipients, their recognition is incredibly well deserved. We’d love to hear about some of your own technology heroes. Let us know on the tips line so that we may help celebrate their accomplishment and inspire the next generation of giants.
We’re so glad to have run across this video where [Rear Admiral Grace Hopper] explains how to visualize a nanosecond. Now we had never heard of [Grace Hopper] before, but once you watch the clip (also embedded after the break) you’ll want to know who this person is. We work with divisions of seconds all the time when developing with microcontrollers. But those concepts are so abstract we never had a need to think about them as a physical distance. After all they’re a measure of time, right?
You can’t make it out, but she’s holding a length of wire between her hands. It is 11.8 inches long and represents how far electricity can travel in one nanosecond (one billionth of one second). She goes on to explain that this is a calculation of the distance which light can travel in one nanosecond, then really hits the concept home when she uses it to explain latency in satellite communications. For us, the waste of not putting a chip into sleep mode when it’s just stuck in the loop waiting for an interrupt is where we made the connection.
So back to the woman herself. We think you’ll really enjoy reading through her Wikipedia biography page. [Grace] was a computer science pioneer. She is credited with writing the very first computer compiler. She postulated and articulated the concepts that led to the development of COBOL, and popularized the term ‘debugging’. In short, she is one of the giants whose shoulders we all stand upon.
Continue reading “Visualizing a nanosecond”