Archive for the ‘Grace Murray Hopper’ Category

Grace’s Place: A Gallery that Remembers

September 17, 2012

We are just a couple of weeks away from celebrating women in computing.   As you prepare to attend Grace Hopper Celebration in Baltimore, I want to share with you how I celebrate Grace Murray Hopper every day.

Computer technology has changed a great deal since I began with punched tape and cards, mag tape, and green and white bar paper.  Knowing the hardware and its limitations helped me understand why systems were developed as they were and how they evolved over time.  But,  when technology changed , students and others began to lose that understanding.  From an historical perspective, if you don’t know where we have been, how can you understand where we are going?

This question sparked an idea.  At first, it was a little idea … help students understand where computers have been and how fast they are changing.  After talking with some of my colleagues, we decided to get a few display cases and show students (and others) about computers.  I thought I would disassemble a few computers so students could see the difference between parts, such as a hard drive and a floppy drive.  Then I thought we could show some old things and people would get the idea.  It was to be a “little project.”

Well, the “little project” took on a life of its own.  Once people knew we were interested in historical and interesting pieces, we received lots of donations of machines, of peripherals, of memorabilia, and everything else you can imagine.  Suddenly we had much more than our few display cases could hold, and all of it was great!

We started “small” (by today’s standards) with a few display cases and some wire shelves.We now have all of those things and more.  We have a fairly complete set of early PC’s (including “clones”) and Apple products (anyone want to donate an Apple I to the collection?).  But, we also have old “dumb” terminals and Heathkit analog computers.  We have modems from acoustic couplers to smart device modems, examples of tapes, cards, and a variety of disks, lots of CPUs, tubes, telephones, smart devices, and more.  We have old minicomputers, terminals and decwriters, and the power  cord, peripheral cords,  and other components from an old mainframe, We have advertising from various eras, and posters.  A museum in spirit, even if it is only a gallery in size.

This gallery is called “Grace’s Place” in honor of Grace Murray Hopper, of course.  From the  beginning, it was obvious that it should be named after her.  We began with an area that had a few pictures on the wall, but no real use.  So, we “commandeered” it for Grace’s Place.  We did not ask permission, but rather were well prepared to ask forgiveness when someone objected.  No one has.  Recently we moved some of our exhibits into a lounge using the same Hopperian philosophy that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission.

But, there were other reasons it was appropriate to name the exhibition after Grace.  She is, after all, an early pioneer in computing.  She is well-recognized for her work with the COBOL programming language, which still runs a significant number of major applications world-wide.   Without COBOL, computers would not have entered the business environment.  She also is recognized as the originator of the idea of making computer languages accessible to people solving business problems, and hence should be important to students learning to code.  Grace Murray Hopper believed it was critical to educate young people, especially about computers, and this exhibit would do that.

However, perhaps the best reason to name it after Grace is because she understood the importance of making things simple when explaining complex topics, and found it useful to use tangible items to help with that explanation.  Anyone who heard her speak in person or on television has head about a “Grace Hopper nanosecond.”   As I heard the story, Dr. Hopper was frustrated by admirals who could not understand why it took so long for information to get from the earth to space. She asked for a piece of wire that was just under a foot.  With that piece of wire, she could illustrate how far electricity could move in one billionth of second (a nanosecond), and thus the admirals were able to understand that there were “many nanoseconds” between the earth and space objects.  When she would speak, Dr. Hopper would distribute “nanoseconds” to the participants and encouraged them not to waste even a microsecond.

Yes, we have a “Hopper nanosecond” in Grace’s Place, with an explanation.  We also have a replica of Dr. Hopper’s log book (the original of which is in the Smithsonian) that included a taped down moth that she found in the computer when she claimed the computer had a “bug.”

Over the years, though, Grace’s Place has grown in depth too.  One patron had a collection of typewriters that she donated as “predecessors to word processors,” and we added a collection of “computing devices,” including slide rules, calculators, abacus and a Marchand comptometer. We have toys that depict computer parts and proudly show Barbie the Computer Engineer.  A local artist created a piece to demonstrate the difference between “spaghetti code” of the early years from “structured code” written today.  (It is multipurpose in that it can also explain the problems of today’s BI systems with lots of messy data being fed into a BI system.)  We have covers of Time magazine that depict stages of computer development.  My favorite is from January 23, 1950 cover which shows a stylized Mark III computer that happens to have a navy cap and sleeves (that I think gives a nod to Dr. Hopper).  Since the museum is named after Hopper, we have information about the naval ship, the Amazing Grace, also named after Grace Murray Hopper.  Finally, we have our very own “Gingerbread Mansion” built as a Christmas decoration by our IT support staff; it is their depiction of a gingerbread house made totally out of computer components.

You can spend a lot of time in Grace’s Place (and you are all invited to do so) because there is so much squeezed into a small space (and, I continue to get more materials in on a regular basis).  When the College of Business builds its new building (date unstated), there is a place for Grace’s Place – in a prominent location with nice shelving and lighting.  But, it will always be “Grace’s Place” because even the donor funding the new location believes that is the appropriate name for the collection.