Grace Hopper meets Howard Aiken

The following description of Grace Hopper's first meeting with Howard Aiken is contained in Computers and their future: speeches given at the World Computer Pioneer Conference, Llandudno, July 1970, also questions and answers (Richard Williams and Partners, 1970). However, the quote appears in many other places. Let us note that Aiken and Hopper wrote three joint papers with the title The automatic sequence controlled calculator all published in 1946. These were translated into Russian and published two years later. Of their first meeting, Grace Hopper said:

Until 1944, I had been a thoroughly respectable mathematician. I had never met a digit, and I wanted nothing to do with digits. I came into the computer business in a unique fashion. I was ordered to the Navy Liaison Officer at Harvard. I left Midshipmen School on Friday, and on Monday morning, 2nd July 1944, I reported to the Navy Liaison Officer, Harvard. He took me by the hand, and led me over to an underground laboratory. I had just acquired one-and-a-half stripes. There stood a large object, with three stripes, who took one look at me and said: "Where the hell have you been?" I spluttered, and said that I had had two days' travel time. He said: "For the last three months." I said: "Midshipmen's School", and he said he had told them it was not necessary. By this time I was practically cowering, of course, but with one-and-a-half stripes, I would stand up straight and listen to three stripes. He waved his hand and said: "That's a computing machine." I said, "Yes, Sir." What else could I say? He said he would like to have me compute the coefficients of the arc tangent series, for Thursday. Again, what could I say? "Yes, Sir." I did not know what on earth was happening, but that was my meeting with Howard Hathaway Aiken. In the long run, he taught me one very important thing. One can always make a mistake once, but it must not be made a second time. That was a very good thing to learn. He also flatly informed me that he had told the Bureau of Naval Personnel not to send him a female. At this point, and over the next few months, I learned another lesson. I could have taken the attitude of showing him, and making him take that back. Instead, I decided it would be far better to learn to work with him. This is a lesson we all need to learn: of not showing people, but learning to work with people. It certainly made a difference in getting things done in the computer field.

Last Updated February 2016