I was recently introduced to Grace Hopper. Well, Grace Hopper the legend, not Grace herself; Grace herself died in 1992. Our introduction came via an automatic signature at the bottom of a friend’s email. Often these auto-signatures offer singular pearls of wisdom, like one of my all-time favorites at the bottom of messages from Rabbi Peter Stein: (A)ll are acceptable to God. The gates are open al all times, and all who wish may enter. (That’s from Exodus Rabbah 19:4 and suggests, as the good rabbi would agree, that nobody has a corner on the Almighty. A lot of grief is coming to the planet from mortals who claim to have a corner on the Almighty.)
But back to my new friend Grace Hopper. Born in 1906, not long after the birth of my mother, Grace grew up to be a computer programmer. A few decades before I started struggling to master the electric typewriter, Grace was conceptualizing the idea of machine-independent programming languages. Which is about what you would expect from somebody who graduates from Vassar (1928) Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in math and physics, and then picks up a Masters from Yale. Her thesis was titled “New types of Irreducibility criteria.” We right-brainers can have a lot of fun just letting these phrases roll around in our heads. In 1943, Grace took a leave of absence from teaching at Vassar to join the Navy — in those days women had their separate service, the WAVES: Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. She eventually retired as a much-decorated USN Rear Admiral. It’s entirely possible that computers wouldn’t be where they are today without the contributions of this slip of a woman. Among a long list of other awards, she was the recipient of an inaugural “Computer Science Man of the Year” award in 1969.
But it’s her pithy quotes that most endear Grace to me. Some, like “It’s easier to apologize than it is to ask permission,” or “The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way’,” are so familiar as to be attributable to dozens of others, but some are pure Grace. And of these, my favorites include “They told me computers could only do arithmetic,” and the one that caught my eye at the bottom of an email:
“A ship in the harbor is safe. But that’s not what ships were built for.” Maybe that originated with Grace, maybe not, but I hope it did. And I hope she’s sailing merrily still in cyberspace; she clearly would not be interested in resting in peace.