Sunday, February 18, 2018

Clocks to Computers! Grace Hopper--Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Willmark





That was Grace Hopper, super woman of her century.

Grace was one of those kids who had to know how everything worked. She took apart all the clocks in the house, and put most of them back together so that  they kept on tickin'. Instead of doll buggies, she got a construction set for Christmas and with it built an elevator that worked. She was always trying to fix things to work better.

She was great at math and managed to finish high school in two years, but her entrance into college was delayed because she flunked Latin. (Dead languages are hard to fix!) But when she had to do it, she passed the exam and was admitted to Vassar College, where she, of course, shone at math and science--and pranks. She continued at Yale, where she didn't mind being the only woman in her Ph.D. program, and with her advanced degree, returned to Vassar to teach. But then World War II began, and, and eager for adventure, Grace tried to enlist in the Navy. The Navy said she was too small, but Grace's amazing skills were soon needed managing the new Mark I computer, and Grace Hopper became a WAVE and a computer geek along with the best of them.

But the huge mechanico-electric computers of the time had a lot of problems. One time Mark I refused to run a new program. The crew worked frantically trying to find the problem, until finally Grace pulled a pocket mirror from her purse to peer inside the giant apparatus.

There was a moth trapped inside, preventing a vital switch from working. Carefully, Grace DE-BUGGED the computer.

And from that day to this, a computer glitch has been called a BUG!

Grace went on to work on the UNIVAC, an even more monstrous apparatus. And she had a better idea--to write the code in English, so that everyone could use it or change it, so she devised a different machine language, using English commands, which eventually became known as... (wait for it!) COBOL!

It was a significant breakthrough, and nothing could stop Grace's rise in rank in the Navy--until she reached mandatory retirement age at 60. It was a short retirement, however, because the Navy was forced to call her back into active duty, where she remained for the next 20 years, ultimately reaching the title of Admiral Grace Hopper.

It's no wonder the Navy called her "amazing Grace," and in Laurie Willmark's new picture book biography, Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (Women Who Changed Our World) (Sterling Books, 2017), elementary readers can get to know that amazing Grace who broke the mold for women in mid-century America. Along with Katy Wu's charming and witty illustrations, author Willmark's lively narration of Hopper's life story is short and breezy enough for a read aloud, but detailed and pithy enough to serve as an inspiring science book report or biography report, and with a full bibliography, ("Women in STEM") and a timeline, this introduction to the adventurous code-breaking Grace is a perfect subject for International Women's Day study on March 8.

And for a great class read aloud novel, share this one with a story of the world's first computer programmer ever, Ada Byron Lovelace, in Jordan Stratford's The Case of the Missing Moonstone (The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, Book 1) (see my 2015 review here.)

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