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Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age (Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation series) Hardcover – 4 Aug 2009
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"Beyer's meticulously researched biography shows how Hopper was one of the first to realise that software was the key to unlocking the power of the computer." -- The Guardian "Bravo to Beyer for unearthing the fascinating, many-faceted history...of a phenomenal technology we take for granted and for portraying a woman of astonishing powers." Booklist
About the Author
Kurt W. Beyer is a former professor at the United States Naval Academy and lectures regularly on the process of technological innovation. He is a cofounder of a digital media services company and has authored multiple patents (pending) on high speed digital data processing.
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The story of the development of software from machine code to what we would recognise as a high level English-like coding system is well told. Beyer spends time describing the intellectual development of Hopper and her team. One key turning point was the realisation that high-level code frees the programmer from being tied to one type of computer. Hopper realised the need for the compiler and the subroutine library. She was a key actor in seeing the potential of computers for business and that a better, and less technical, interface was needed.
Now the criticisms. Beyer really has taken the idea of iteration to heart. He repeats things irritatingly. He tells us over and over again that Hopper wrote 'A Manual of Operation...'. There are other examples of repeated descriptions of events and ideas.
The book is very confusingly structured. Beyer jumps backward and forward in time in a very cavalier manner. I don't think that this was necessary, as most of the events fit neatly on a timeline and could have been presented linearly. This would have highlighted the developmental threads much more clearly. I think that this book was a concatenation of several separate accounts and was not subject to sufficiently critical reading and editing. That would account for the repetition and structural weakness.
If the author had avoided repetition and had used a better structure, the work would have been perhaps two thirds the length. It would also have been more readable. Another piece of padding was the philosophical discussion about the nature of historical description and the detailing of sources. I ploughed through it through sheer will-power. I don't think it adds to the book and its story.
This book has the feel of a PhD thesis that was expanded. If so it was a good idea. However it would have been better either to publish only the essential text or to add further chapters on how Hopper's idea and innovations continued and affected subsequent history. The period from 1967 to 1992 was covered in a mere two pages.
Criticism apart, for anyone interested in computing, this is a fascinating book.
In many ways, she is a textbook case of someone who was in the right place at the right time. As a young woman, Hopper benefited from a passing fashion amongst wealthy East Coast families for giving their daughters a college education. A talented mathematician, Hopper began her career as an academic and teacher. Following America's entry to the War in 1941, Hopper quickly found herself working on the Navy's "Computational Project" using something that would eventually be called a "computer" (in the 1940's "computer" referred to a person rather than a machine). The rest as they say is history.
Hopper's vision for computing in the post-War world was as a tool for transforming business, rather than just solving mathematical problems for universities or the military. Moving between big business, defence(the Pentagon was a major financier of early computing) and academia, Hopper got people, including business rivals, to work together to establish a common infrastructure for the future of computing. COBOL, the first business orientated programming language and the Open Source movement are among the most well known products of this collaborative approach.
Although nominally a biography, this book is (as the subtitle suggests) very much about the creation of the information age. Beyer's argument is that successful inventions are about more than brilliant individuals: they need groups of people to adopt new ideas and make them work. Hopper's genius lay as much in being a gifted communicator and facilitator as in being the begetter of original ideas.
Whilst not overly technical, this book assumes an understanding of basic IT concepts such as compilers and subroutines and is most likely to interest readers with some connection to the world of computing.
It should also interest anyone concerned about the role of women in the workplace. Computing's wartime roots meant that the earliest programmers were almost exclusively female and Hopper consciously promoted the concept of a new profession that was free of traditional gender stereotyping. This was one vision that was not realised. The proportion of women in computing has shown a steady decline over the last twenty years and the trend seems set to continue.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
As history, however, the book misses one of Hopper's most important contributions -- the notion of an industry-wide standard. Hopper's work to convene the CODASYL group was the first of a long line of standards efforts (including ICANN and the rest of the Internet infrastructure) without which the Information Age would have withered for lack of cross-enterprise fertilization.
I was trained on UNIVAC computers in 1962. Eventually, spent 21 years of my life programming computers. Got a chance to chat with Grace Hopper a couple of times in her Pentagon office back in 1970.
This book does a masterful job of telling how it all came about especially from the perspective of someone who's done a lot of programming.
When I got involved with UNIVAC computers in 1962, the invention of the basics of the digital computer and high order programming languages were essentially complete. I found it fascinating to read about the early machines and the struggle by the programmers to communicate with them and to get the results they needed. The technical descriptions of the machines involved don't tell me as much about what's really going on as the descriptions of the early efforts to program them.
A great read. A much needed combination of biography and history.