Grace Hopper and the Model T Computer

Originally published March 16, 1984 in The Elkhart Truth

SOUTH BEND — When Commodore Grace Hopper says that computers have reached the “Model T” stage, she knows whereof she speaks. At age 78, she’s one of the few to have had the chance to see both Model T’s and computers up close.

“Whether you’ve recognized it or not, the Model T’s of the computer industry are here,” she told an overflow audience of more than 420 computer professionals Sunday night at the Marriott Hotel. “And we’re going to see changes as great as were created by the Model T Ford. We’re only at the beginning.”

The oldest active member of the U.S. Navy, Commodore Hopper is one of the most respected figures in the computer world. She has played a major role in the evolution of computer applications and programming in both government and business for 40 years, garnering virtually every conceivable honor (including a favorable profile on CBS’s “”60 Minutes”).

Though she downplays the awards and jokes about being taken for an airport guide or hotel security guard, Commodore Hopper is proud of the uniform she wears. After being asked to retire from the reserves at age 60 (“”the saddest day of my life”), she was recalled in 1967 for what was to be six months’ temporary duty. The six months have now stretched into 17 years.

“I have already received the highest award I will ever receive, no matter how long I live or how many more jobs I have, and that’s the privilege and responsibility of serving proudly in the U.S. Navy,” she said.

Her 90-minute talk was equal parts history, futurism, and philosophy, leavened with a generous dose of humor. A recurring theme was the need to evaluate “”the quality and value” of the data that is processed.

“Information by itself doesn’t do anything. It still has to go to a human brain, which interprets it, corrolates it, screens it, and turns it into what we might call intelligence,” Cmdr. Hopper reminded her attentive audience. “We spend a lot of time training people to run hardware and write software. We spend almost no time training people to look at information and derive things from it.”

Commodore Hopper told the audience to banish “but we’ve always done it that way” from their vocabulary, calling it “the most dangerous thought in any operation.”

To illustrate how computer technology has advanced, Hopper described the Mark I, the first large-scale digital computer and her first assignment in the field.

“She was 51 feet long by 8 feet high by 8 feet deep, had 72 words of storage and could do three additions every single second,” she recalled.  “That sounds absolutely pitiful today, but that was the first machine man ever built that increased the power of his mind instead of the strength of his arm.”

Present-day computers are a million times faster, Cmdr. Hopper said, but still faster computers are needed.

“The biggest boost we could give to increasing food supplies is better long-term weather forecasting. Yet we do not today have a computer which can run a full-scale model of the complex heat engine that consists of the atmosphere and ocean,” she noted.

In what has become a Hopper trademark, she handed out “nanoseconds” — 11.6 inch lengths of wire which represent the distance light travels in a millionth of a second. Nanoseconds are used to measure the calculating speed of a computer. Commodore Hopper described her hands-on version as useful for “educating wives and kids and admirals.”

She said that, because of the limitations of physics, the answer to faster data processing is “”not to get a bigger computer, but to get another computer” and predicted that tomorrow’s supercomputers would actually be systems of specialized machines linked together.

Sprinkled thoroughout her talk were memorable aphorisms. A few samples:
On the systems approach: “”We didn’t have systems before World War II. Before World War II I had a sick stomach. After World War II I had a malfunctioning gastrointestinal system.”
On taking chances: “”A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”
On trying new ideas: “”Go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than to get permission.”
On the need for leadership: “You manage things. You lead people.”

Cmdr. Hopper’s appearance was arranged by the local chapters of the Data Processing Management Association (president George Lanphere) and Association of Systems Managers (president Thomas Fritz).