Recognizing a pioneer: Penn Engineering’s Grace Hopper

Hopper was honored for developing the A-0 compiler, an early innovation in computer programming.

Today, programming languages resemble English. Words like “function” and “return” maintain their everyday meaning in popular contemporary languages like Python, Java and JavaScript. Without an A-0 compiler, a crucial tool written by Grace Hopper, a Penn lecturer, in the early 1950s, these advances in abstracting the complex processes that take place inside computers might not have been developed as rapidly as they were.

An IEEE MILESTONE plaque commemorating Grace Hopper
The IEEE Milestone recognizing Grace Hopper’s development of the A-0 compiler will live in perpetuity next to the ENIAC. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Engineering Today)

On May 7, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) dedicated an IEEE Milestone marker in recognition of the significance of the A-0 compiler, an early innovation in computer programming developed by the pioneering computer scientist.

While working at the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (known today as Unisys), Hopper recognized a common problem when writing mathematical functions for computers. The A-0 compiler created a “library” of such functions, any of which could be retrieved with a single command, reducing human error by using a symbolic term to abstract a complex process.

For Hopper, the A-0 compiler was an important step in the process of making programming more accessible to everyone.

The IEEE Milestone, a plaque that will live in perpetuity at Penn Engineering, was made possible due to the efforts of Kathleen McDevitt, IEEE Philadelphia Section vice chair, and André DeHon, professor in electrical and systems engineering (ESE) and in computer and information science (CIS). “This milestone celebrates the first step of applying computers to automate the tedious portions of their own programming. It is fitting to host this milestone at Penn from which the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation was spun out and where she lectured,” says DeHon.

This story is by Ian Scheffler. Read more at Penn Engineering Today.