Security – Grandma COBOL

Younger millennials have always had a computer in their pockets; smart phones were du jour by the time their generation came of age. They never knew the agonizing sounds of a dial-up connection, or the inordinate wait time for a floppy disk to load. More seasoned generations have experienced the evolution of computers taking up entire rooms to today’s extreme portability.  

American computer engineering milestones can be traced back to the start, in the 1800s, when they were first used for calculating numbers at incredible speeds. For instance, Herman Hollerith, the grandfather of IBM, designed a punch-card system to help calculate the 1890 U.S. Census (based on the punch card design of a French fabric designer). Columbia University claims the machine saved the government $5 billion dollars.  

Fifty years later, a garage in Palo Alto, California became the first headquarters of Hewlett-Packard. In 1941, John Vincent Atanasoff, professor of physics and mathematics at Iowa State University, alongside one of his graduate students, Clifford Berry, designed the first digital electronic computer in the U.S. The ABC (Atanasoff-Berry Computer) was able to store information on its main memory and could perform operations every 15 seconds. American ingenuity caused the evolution of computer engineering to skyrocket in the last century, and there is one American in particular we can thank:  

Grace Hopper, Rear Admiral of the United States Navy. 

She was a dedicated patriot who attempted to join the Navy at age 34 but was turned down due to her age and slight stature. Instead, she joined the Navy Reserves and began a long and decorated career working for the safety and freedom of American citizens. Her curiosity about mechanical things began at an early age, when her mother discovered that young Grace had taken apart every alarm clock in the house to see how they worked. Admiral Hopper was a prolific voice in the computer engineering field; one of her most notable inventions was the compiler, which helped translate instructions to computers. 

The compiler, she said,  

“translated mathematical notation into machine code. Manipulating symbols was fine for mathematicians but it was no good for data processors who were not symbol manipulators…So I decided data processors ought to be able to write their programs in English, and the computers would translate them into machine code. That was the beginning of COBOL, a computer language for data processors. I could say ‘Subtract income tax from pay’ instead of trying to write that in octal code or using all kinds of symbols.” 

COBOL stands for Common Business-Oriented Language. Hopper, known as the “First Lady of Sofware” and also “Grandma COBOL,” is also credited with creating the first computer manual, “A Manual of Operation for the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator.”  

After her retirement from the Navy as the oldest (at that time) active-duty commissioned officer, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her continued contributions. Hopper also had a heart for teaching young people, noting,  

“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ’em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ’em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.” 

This dedication to American innovation is what drove Grace Hopper, and it runs within the veins of KMC as well. For the last fifty years, KMC Controls has remained dedicated to the American ideals of quality and innovation, focusing on intuitive solutions created by responsive and supportive people.   

KMC Controls is an independent and family-owned manufacturer of turn-key solutions based in New Paris, Indiana. To learn more about KMC Controls, visit Join us for the final installments of our newest blog series, as we learn more about these unsung heroes in “The Patents that Made Us: A History of American Innovation in Building Automation.”