Interview: Gillian Jacobs, Director Of 'The Queen Of Code' : All Tech Considered Gillian Jacobs, known for her role as Britta Perry on Community, directed a short documentary on the computer programming pioneer. She says Hopper wasn't fond of the hype over her accomplishments.
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Grace Hopper, 'The Queen Of Code,' Would Have Hated That Title

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Grace Hopper, 'The Queen Of Code,' Would Have Hated That Title

Grace Hopper, 'The Queen Of Code,' Would Have Hated That Title

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It has been an epic struggle for women to get a foothold in the tech world, which makes it all the more remarkable that one amazing woman played a vital role in creating the tech world. Her name is Grace Hopper. In this "60 Minutes" interview from 1983 with Morley Safer, 76-year-old Hopper says she left her teaching job at Vassar to join the Navy Reserve during World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

GRACE HOPPER: Well, it had to be the Navy because my great-grandfather was a rear admiral, besides which I like blue.

RATH: She went to Harvard, where she was on the team that wrote the first program for America's first programmable computer - the Harvard Mark I. Gillian Jacobs, who plays Britta in the TV show "Community," directed a new documentary about Grace Hopper titled "The Queen Of Code." Jacobs says it was a group of women programming the first computers back in those days, and Grace Hopper was leading the charge.

GILLIAN JACOBS: These people were making it up as they went along. The computers they were working on were the size of rooms. They were breaking down constantly. Apparently, one night the computer stopped working. They went to look and actually found a moth in a relay.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE QUEEN OF CODE")

HOPPER: So the operator got a pair of tweezers and very carefully fished the moth out of the relay, put it in the logbook, put scotch tape over it. And below it, he wrote first actual bug found.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: So I don't know if Grace Hopper herself coined that term, but it's often associated with her that we now think of debugging. The public image of Grace Hopper really is from her later years. When she rejoined the Navy, she was always in full naval dress. She wore cat-eye glasses. She was a very tiny woman. She managed to ride the line between being forceful enough to get what she wanted accomplished and she referred to herself as a pirate within the Navy. She would march into her superior's office and demand things, but she also was incredibly funny and she's just a fascinating woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

DAVID LETTERMAN: And you worked on the original computer in this country, right?

HOPPER: I was very fortunate...

JACOBS: Grace Hopper made a very memorable appearance on David Letterman, where he asked her...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LETTERMAN: How did you know so much about computers then?

HOPPER: I didn't.

LETTERMAN: How did you...

HOPPER: It was the first one.

LETTERMAN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: (Laughter) She had a kind of like playful smile and she would say something that she knew was incredibly funny, but with the most dry delivery and just sort of wait for a response, which I really enjoyed about her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LETTERMAN: Thirty-seven, now what interested you about going into the Navy at 37?

HOPPER: Well, World War II to begin with.

(LAUGHTER)

HOPPER: That's one of the hardest things...

JACOBS: Grace Hopper was able to succeed in a number of male-dominated institutions - the Navy, the computing industry - and yet she never considered herself a feminist. And I have a clip in my documentary where she's asked by an interviewer what have you made of the women's lib movement of the last 20 years. And she said...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE QUEEN OF CODE")

HOPPER: I don't know much about it because I didn't have to worry about it. I was in the Navy.

JACOBS: There's a celebration named after her. She's got a destroyer named after her. But she herself kind of had disdain for that. So it's sort of the two at play - her public image as this sort of icon of computing and then the woman herself, who probably would have taken a pin to that balloon. So (laughter)...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE QUEEN OF CODE")

HOPPER: You've got a get out there and help us train the youngsters. Teach them to go ahead and do it. Teach them to have courage. Teach them to use their intuition, to stick their necks out. You've got to move to the future. We're going to need all of them.

RATH: Rear Admiral Grace Hopper went on to become the oldest-serving officer in the United States Navy. She died in 1992. Gillian Jacobs' new documentary "The Queen Of Code" is streaming online. Find a link at our website npr.org. Additional archived audio clips in our story are courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

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