Grace Hopper on Letterman

A few minutes into her appearance on David Letterman, Grace Hopper pulls out a bundle of wires, all snipped into a few inches long.  “I could give you a nanosecond,” she tells him. Each piece of wire, she notes, is how far light or electricity can travel in a nanosecond. Why illustrate this bit of arcana? Because, she adds, if you want answers faster, you’ve got to make information travel faster too, inside a computer. “Pick your favorite color,” she tells Letterman, as he selects a wire. “In the old days, you only had a choice of white or grey,” he quips.

Hopper’s appearance on Letterman, in November of 1986, marked a fascinating moment: mainstream society was just becoming dimly aware of the computer revolution. Software hadn’t yet “eaten the world,” of course. Most people weren’t even using word processors yet, let alone mobile phones or the Internet. But clearly Letterman’s staff had cottoned to the idea that computers were tilting the world on its axes. They wanted a famous programmer to put a human face on the trend.

Hopper was one of the most famous yet. “You’re known as the queen of software, is that right?” Letterman asks her; “more or less,” she replies, tinder-dry. Hopper was a hacker’s hacker. As a child, she destroyed so many clocks disassembling them that her parents bought her one specifically to tear apart and rebuild, forbidding her from touching any others. After getting her PhD in math and enlisting in the navy during World War II, she became a pioneer engineer working on some of the earliest digital machines ever—the Mark I at Harvard, then the ur-commercial computer, the UNIVAC. She went on to develop the first compiler, and blazed trails in building the first modern computer languages—ones where you wrote language, instead of binary or assembly code. “Hopper’s inventions broke down the communications barrier between man and machine,” as her biographer Kurt Beyer wrote. She wanted everyday white-collar workers and scientists to be able to code: her first language FLOW-MATIC (arguably the coolest language name in history), helped pave the way for COBOL.

As a woman in field that was—by the 70s—gradually squeezing its pioneering women out, Hopper had a hacker’s approach to bulldozing through systems. “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission,” she said, and you’ve probably quoted it, not knowing Hopper said it first. She popularized the term “bug” in coding after the Mark I team found a moth lodged inside the malfunctioning machine. She thought the MBAs and suits should leave the damn creators alone. She pioneered foundational ways to think about data structures.

Mind you, you can’t glimpse any of this Olympian career in the Letterman segment. Though it’s a justifiably famous moment in cyberculture—Hopper on Letterman, omg!—the interview itself is a rather rambling and disjointed affair, touching only vaguely on what Hopper did. Letterman clearly understood Hopper was titanic, but he couldn’t quite figure out why (“I know nothing of computers,” he admits), and there wasn’t yet any way to make computers terribly interesting to the denizens of late-night TV. Code had no cultural cachet yet, no hook.

Hopper seems to get this. She knows her job is just to chitchat. She actually doesn’t talk about computers herself, either—she mostly just cracks jokes about Reagan, bemoans the horridness of pantyhose, and then at the end, suddenly interrogates Letterman about whether he’s Irish or Scottish, a line of inquiry that clearly confuses the hell out of him. Hopper is, frankly, kind of weird, in a way that was, ultimately, probably not a bad representation of the computer culture that was about to phagocytose the mainstream. Hello, world!

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