From a young age, Katherine Johnson loved to count absolutely everything. From counting the steps she walked, to the steps of stairs there was on her community’s church, she never stopped counting. In general, she loved to learn as well, especially mathematics.
At the age of 10 years old, she began high school and went to college at the age of 15. Following her college career of becoming an mathematician, Katherine became a teacher for a period of time before she heard that NACA, currently known as NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration], was hiring African American women to solve mathematical problems.
After several applications to begin working at what the position was called “computers”, Katherine finally got hired and began working with a large group of women who were all in the same work position. They were all responsible for manually performing complex mathematical calculations for the program’s engineers. This was essential for the early U.S. space program to analyze test data and provide mathematical computations.
While they were all in the same work position, Katherine stood out for her genius mind with numbers and intelligence. In 1960, Katherine Johnson moved from working as a computer and joined the Space Task Group. She also co-authored a paper with one of the other engineers in the group about calculation for placing a spacecraft into orbit.
This was the first time a woman in her division has ever received credit as an author of a research report. Following this, Katherine continued to be authored/co-authored for 26 more research reports during her career.
Besides her research, Katherine Johnson played an important role in NASA’s Mercury program and she even calculated the path of Freedom 7, which was the first spacecraft to put the first U.S. astronaut into space. Later on, Katherine became part of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 and was in charge of calculating where and when to launch the rocket. Eventually, in the year 1986, Katherine Johnson retired from NASA and lived a long life until February 2020 where she passed away at the age 101.
In the year 1906 in New York City, Grace Brewster Murray was born and spent her young education in private schools advancing at mathematics. Being the daughter of a Yale graduate, she knew the importance of education and decided to continue her studies in higher education. In 1928, Grace graduated from Vassar College with two degrees in mathematics and physics.
Not long after, Grace Hopper decided to go to Yale for her master’s degree in mathematics and eventually decided to begin teaching back at Vassar where she received her bachelor’s degree. Even though she just received her masters degree and is still fully involved in education with her teaching, that didn’t stop Grace from continuing on even further with getting her doctorate at Yale.
In this time, it wasn’t common until the 1920s and 1930s for women to start receiving doctorates. Unfortunately, this number dipped again and didn’t reach a peak until the 1980s again. But lucky for Grace, this was an opportune time for her to seek higher education and to be recognized in her field.
This is where she met Howard Engstrom, a computer pioneer. She also soon studied with Richard Courant, a famous mathematician, during her one-year sabbatical from Vassar.
Being in a male-dominated field, Grace continued to gain recognition and make progress with her studies. She also seeked to join another male-dominated field, the military, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
One thing that is for certain is that nothing ever stopped Grace from doing what she desired in life, no matter what prejudices or limitations there were. After being rejected from the U.S., she persisted and eventually joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in December 1943. Hopper was then assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard.
For a while, Grace Hopper worked with Howard AIken, who constituted one of the first three computer programmers, and they developed the programming for Mark I. Grace also became responsible for working on top-secret calculations such as computing rocket trajectories, and calibrating minesweepers.
After leaving service in 1946, she began some of her most notable work such as UNIVAC [Universal Automatic Computer]. In 1952, her programming team developed what is considered the first computer language “compiler”, called A-0.
Her team was also the first team to develop the first programming language that uses English-like Commands called Flow-Matic.
According to an 1980 interview with Grace Hopper, she discussed why she thought using English commands was better. As she stated, “ “What I was after in beginning English language [programming] was to bring another whole group of people able to use the computer easily … I kept calling for more user friendly languages. Most of the stuff we get from academicians, computer science people, is in no way adapted to people.”
While there were many other important discoveries throughout her career, one of the other highly recognized ones is her introduction of COBOL. While many people were responsible for the development of COBOL, Grace Hopper had significant influence on the military’s adaptation of using COBOL.
At the age of 79, Grace Hopper retired as a rear admiral. She ended up being the oldest serving officer in the U.S. Armed Forces. Hopper also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor.