President Barack Obama awarded Presidential Medals of Freedom to two storied women in tech — one posthumously to Grace Hopper, known as the “first lady of software,” and one to programmer Margaret Hamilton.
Hopper worked on the Harvard Mark I computer, and invented the first compiler.
“At age 37 and a full 15 pounds below military guidelines, the gutsy and colorful Grace joined the Navy and was sent to work on one of the first computers, Harvard’s Mark 1,” Obama said at the ceremony Tuesday. “She saw beyond the boundaries of the possible and invented the first compiler, which allowed programs to be written in regular language and then translated for computers to understand.”
Hopper followed her mother into mathematics, and earned a doctoral degree from Yale, Obama said. She retired from the Navy as a rear admiral.
“From cell phones to Cyber Command, we can thank Grace Hopper for opening programming up to millions more people, helping to usher in the Information Age and profoundly shaping our digital world,” Obama said.
Hamilton led the team that created the onboard flight software for NASA’s Apollo command modules and lunar modules, according to a White House release.
“At this time software engineering wasn’t even a field yet,” Obama noted at the ceremony. “There were no textbooks to follow, so as Margaret says, ‘there was no choice but to be pioneers.’”
He added: “Luckily for us, Margaret never stopped pioneering. And she symbolizes that generation of unsung women who helped send humankind into space.”
Obama noted that the MIT scientist and working mother’s software architecture can be seen in many technologies today.
“And her example speaks of the American spirit of discovery that exists in every little girl and little boy who know that somehow, to look beyond the heavens is to look deep within ourselves and to figure out just what is possible,” he said.
As Hamilton accepted her award, the announcer noted “her love of exploration and innovation are the source code of the American spirit, and her genius has inspired generations to reach for the stars.”