: New: Book Report: Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age

It's a combination biography of Grace Hopper and story of the development of COBOL, the first mumble programming language (where historians and quibblers enjoy arguing about what exact phrase goes in the place of mumble, but let's say it's in the neighborhood of "widely-used high-level"). There's more to the biography than just COBOL. Tech innovators who live on the edge might be amused by stories of a computer programmer job-hunting after World War II: a few weirdos were pretty sure these computer thingies could be useful someday; but funding was tough to come by; companies fell apart or got acquired by BigCo's who didn't "get it"… But I was mostly paying attention to the story of COBOL.

Hopper organized folks to collaborate on designing a programming language. She did this back when folks weren't even sure that programming languages were a good idea. She did this before you could organize folks by saying "I set up a messaging board on the internet, let's talk." She was mailing out physical letters; waiting for physical letters coming back. Getting people to gather in places to talk the issues over. Getting folks to go to all this trouble for a programming language… again, when folks weren't even sure that programming languages were a good idea.

She succeeded—people used COBOL for decades afterwards. In hindsight, I wish she hadn't succeeded so well and so quickly. Maybe if it had taken longer to design COBOL… maybe if hardware memory had been cheaper by the time COBOL came along… maybe then folks would have felt OK allocating four digits to store year-numbers and the the Y2K crisis would have been a tiny blip instead of a whole big thing.

Anyhow, this was an inspiring tale of a nerd who could wrangle computers could wrangle humans, achieving some impressive results in a time of "flint knives and bearskins".

Tags: book programming programming languages

blog comments powered by Disqus