Some of life’s great eternal questions include: What happens when we die? Will the universe expand forever? Why the hell don’t more people know about Grace Hopper?
We may not know the answers to the first two questions, but allow us to help you with that last one.
First things first, when talking Grace Harper, make that Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, Ph.D.
Born in 1906 in New York City, Hopper started tech exploration by dismantling the alarm clocks in her house when she was seven-years old. Though her mother eventually limited her to experimenting on only one alarm clock, she encouraged little Grace to explore mathematics.
And boy, did she ever. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar with a Bachelor’s in Mathematics and Physics. Then she earned master’s at Yale. And after that, she nabbed a Ph.D at Yale.
She became a professor at Vassar, but like many women, her real opportunities opened up with World War II. When the Navy’s volunteer program for women known as WAVES started, Hopper signed up and took a leave of absence from Vassar.
At that point, she was almost 40, was way below the Navy’s minimum weight requirement and had a brain the size Jupiter. The Navy had no idea what to do with her. So they shipped her off to Harvard to work on a special project.
Which leads us to…
ASS KICKING #1: Steve Jobs may have helped end Nokia, but Grace Hopper helped end World War II.
No one ever died because the iPhone 6 came out late. But if Hopper was late delivering the goods, it meant people died.
Technology killed more people in World War II than anything else. Radar, jet engines and—notoriously—the atom bomb. Though Hopper didn’t know it at the time, she was working on the bomb.
There’s a lot of math that goes into building a bomb. At the beginning of the war, this math was done by women who hand calculated the solutions. Mathematics problems could take days to solve.
The special project Hopper worked on at Harvard aimed to speed that up. The Mark I was developed to solve these equations at a rate of 3 per second.
Even though she had a Ph.D., she had to work under a grad student at Harvard. Unsurprisingly, that grad student had a hissy fit when he found out his second in command was a woman.
Did she care? Hell, no. She just wanted to get her hands on that computer. She was so brilliant, it didn’t take long for the grad student to shut right up with the whole, “but …she’s a woman!” thing.
Next, the Navy sent her a whopper of a problem: an excruciating partial differential equation that was impossible to solve with a hand-calculating method. Hopper and her team set out to solve it with the Mark 1. Even with the fastest computing machine on earth, it took three months to solve the equation.
After the war, she discovered that a differential equation is what made the atom bomb possible. For better or worse, her solution ended World War II.
Okay, so Jobs wasn’t born until a decade after the war ended. That may have hampered his ability to contribute to the war effort. But still.
ASS KICKING #2: Hopper “Thought Differently” about seven decades before Jobs’ “Think Different” ads.
Frank Sinatra? Desi Arnez? Ted Turner?
Pssssht. Please. Jobs missed the boat in a big way by not putting Hopper front and center in Apple’s “Think Different” ad campaign.
Hopper once said, “the most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’” This was an anathema to Hopper. “I’m going to shoot somebody for saying that someday,” she joked. “In the computer industry, with changes coming as fast as they do, you just can’t afford to have people saying that.”
She demonstrated this to everyone that walked into her office by having the clock on her wall run backwards. It wasn’t just to mess with people’s heads. It was to show people that even though the clock didn’t work the way they were used to, it still told time. It just told time in a different way.
“A ship in port is safe,” she’d say. “But that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.”
ASS KICKING #3: Steve Jobs got his way through screaming. Grace Hopper got her way through lulz.
Steve Jobs sure did get his employees to do amazing things. He didn’t accept mediocrity and as a result his engineers came up with the most innovative products on the market.
But unlike Jobs, Hopper didn’t need to call people “f****** d******* a*******” when they didn’t deliver a product on time. According to biographer Kathleen Williams, Hopper was not only “naturally charming, naturally friendly, naturally liked to get her own way, she realized early on that she could do that better with sugar than with vinegar.”
She didn’t scream at newbies, she backed them up. And she considered that the best thing she ever did. “The most important thing I’ve accomplished is training young people. They come to me and say, ‘do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ‘em up. They need that.”