Commemorating Grace Hopper, the Woman Who Inspired NVIDIA’s CPU

March 06, 2023 by Aaron Carman

Grace Hopper’s advancements helped bring about the modern age of computing, a feat highlighted by NVIDIA’s processor named after her.

As an electrical engineering media platform, we would be remiss not to discuss the vast technological feats of the legendary computer pioneer Grace Hopper during Women’s History Month. While Grace Hopper may not be a household name, even among electronics enthusiasts, her contributions to the field of computing have had long-lasting impacts that are still felt nearly 80 years later.


Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper, pictured standing next to the UNIVAC magnetic tape drives, formed the basis on which the COBOL language was built. Image used courtesy of the Computer History Museum


While an exhaustive list of Hopper's contributions can’t be condensed into a single article, this piece aims to give readers a sense of Hopper's profound developments during her 85 years of life and how they have shaped (and continue to shape) the engineering world as we know it.


Breaking Down the Human-Computer Language Barrier

From a young age, Grace Murray Hopper was fascinated with how machines work and interact, reportedly taking apart seven alarm clocks trying to figure out their operation as a child. In 1923 Hopper attended Vassar College, where she received bachelor’s degrees in math and physics. Hopper then earned her master’s and Ph.D. degrees in mathematics from Yale University, making her the first woman to attain the degree from Yale.

At the start of World War II, Hopper joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project at Harvard, which is where she gained experience programming some of the first computers. During this time, she reportedly found a moth inside the Mark II computer and coined the terms “computer bug” and “debugging,” although it is uncertain if she was truly the first to author the terms.


First bug in a computer

The first actual case of a "bug" in a computer was taped into a lab notebook and commemorated at the Smithsonian Museum. Image used courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum


After joining the private sector in 1949, Hopper performed her most influential work. During her time at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, she successfully bridged the gap between English and machine language with the advent of the first compiler. Her compiler, named “A-0”, allowed for machine code to be automatically generated from an English-based language, simplifying programming and setting the foundation for COBOL to revolutionize the computing industry.


More Than a Scientist

Though she left her faculty position to join the Navy, Grace was never one to shy away from teaching. She served as a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University and even organized workshops and conferences to help continue growing the number of programmers in the world. She was regarded as a gifted communicator, possessing the ability to teach to a wide audience of all backgrounds—something highlighted by her appearance on Letterman in 1986.


Grace Hopper gave a lecture on Howard Acker and the Harvard Mark I computer

Grace Hopper gave a lecture on Howard Acker and the Harvard Mark I computer in 1983 at the Computer Museum. Image used courtesy of the Computer History Museum


When receiving the National Medal of Technology in 1991, Hopper said, “If you ask me what accomplishment I’m most proud of, the answer would be all the young people I’ve trained over the years; that’s more important than writing the first compiler.” 

Today, Grace Hopper is seen not only as a pioneer of modern computing but as an inspiration for inventors and engineers to let their ambitions drive them to success without fear of failure.

"A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for."

This inspiration is evident through numerous namesakes in Hopper's honor, including colleges, U.S. Navy vessels, and high-performance computer chips. At 85 years of age, Grace Hopper was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors and was posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016


A Lasting Impact

One of the most recent examples of Hopper’s inspiration lies in the NVIDIA Grace Hopper Superchip, consisting of the Grace CPU and Hopper GPU combined via a chip-to-chip coherent memory model. While the Superchip is certainly a significant leap from the machines of the 1950s that Hopper worked with, it clearly represents the broad impact of Hopper’s legacy.