programming2One of the first high level programming languages written for a computer, Plankalkül was created by Konrad Zuse in Nazi Germany during World War II. Stemming from his work on the Z1 and Z2, he developed the language between 1943 and 1945. It was a non-von Neumann,  algorithmic  language and has been compared to APL.

The First Computer Bug


American engineers have been calling small flaws in machines “bugs” for over a century. Thomas Edison talked about bugs in electrical circuits in the 1870s. When the first computers were built during the early 1940s, people working on them found bugs in both the hardware of the machines and in the programs that ran them.

In 1947, Grace Hopper, working on the Mark II computer at Harvard University found a moth stuck in one of the components. She taped the insect in their logbook and labeled it “first actual case of bug being found.” The use of the words “bug” and “debug” soon became a standard.

John Von Neumann

vonNeumannVon Neumann’s interest in computers differed from that of his peers by his quickly perceiving the application of computers to applied mathematics for specific problems, rather than their mere application to the development of tables. During the war, von Neumann’s expertise in hydrodynamics, ballistics, meteorology, game theory, and statistics, was put to good use in several projects. This work led him to consider the use of mechanical devices for computation, and although the stories about von Neumann imply that his first computer encounter was with the ENIAC, in fact it was with Howard Aiken’s Harvard Mark I (ASCC) calculator. His correspondence in 1944 shows his interest with the work of not only Aiken but also the electromechanical relay computers of George Stibitz, and the work by Jan Schilt at the Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia University.

By the latter years of World War II, von Neumann was playing the part of an executive management consultant, serving on several national committees, applying his amazing ability to rapidly see through problems to their solutions. Through this means he was also a conduit between groups of scientists who were otherwise shielded from each other by the requirements of secrecy. He brought together the needs of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (and the Manhattan Project) with the capabilities of firstly the engineers at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering who were building the ENIAC, and later his own work on building the IAS machine. Several “supercomputers” were built by National Laboratories as copies of his machine.

In the 1950’s von Neumann was employed as a consultant to IBM to review proposed and ongoing advanced technology projects. One day a week, von Neumann “held court” at 590 Madison Avenue, New York. On one of these occasions in 1954 he was confronted with the FORTRAN concept; John Backus remembered von Neumann being unimpressed and that he asked “why would you want more than machine language?” Frank Beckman, who was also present, recalled that von Neumann dismissed the whole development as “but an application of the idea of Turing’s `short code’.” Donald Gillies, one of von Neumann’s students at Princeton, and later a faculty member at the University of Illinois, recalled in the mid-1970’s that the graduates students were being “used” to hand assemble programs into binary for their early machine (probably the IAS machine). He took time out to build an assembler, but when von Neumann found out about it he was very angry, saying (paraphrased), “It is a waste of a valuable scientific computing instrument to use it to do clerical work.”

Harvard Mark II

markiiHoward Aiken and Grace Hopper designed the MARK series of computers at Harvard University. The MARK series began with the Mark I in 1944. Imagine a giant roomful of noisy, clicking metal parts, 55 feet long and 8 feet high. The 5-ton device contained almost 760,000 separate pieces. It was used by the US Navy for gunnery and ballistic calculations.

The computer, controlled by pre-punched paper tape, could carry out addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and reference to previous results. It had special subroutines for logarithms and trigonometric functions and used 23 decimal place numbers. Data was stored and counted mechanically using 3000 decimal storage wheels, 1400 rotary dial switches, and 500 miles of wire. Its electromagnetic relays classified the machine as a relay computer. All output was displayed on an electric typewriter. By today’s standards, the Mark II was slow, requiring 3-5 seconds for a multiplication operation.

Grace Hopper

hopper2Grace Brewster Murray graduated from Vassar with a B.A. in mathematics in 1928 and worked under algebraist Oystein Ore at Yale for her M.A. (1930) and Ph.D. (1934). She married Vincent Foster Hopper, an educator, in 1930 and began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931. She had achieved the rank of associate professor in 1941 when she won a faculty fellowship for study at New York University’s Courant Institute for Mathematics. Hopper had come from a family with military traditions, thus it was not surprising to anyone when she resigned her Vassar post to join the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) in December 1943.

She was commissioned a lieutenant in July 1944 and reported to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, where she was the third person to join the research team of professor (and Naval Reserve lieutenant) Howard H. Aiken. She recalled that he greeted her with the words, “Where the hell have you been?” and pointed to his electromechanical Mark I computing machine, saying “Here, compute the coefficients of the arc tangent series by next Thursday.” Hopper plunged in and learned to program the machine, putting together a 500-page Manual of Operations for the Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator in which she outlined the fundamental operating principles of computing machines.

By the end of World War II in 1945, Hopper was working on the Mark II version of the machine, where she found the first bug, influenced the creation of COBOL with the first English-like language FLOW-MATIC, and had helped design one of the first electronic computers. Although her marriage was dissolved at this point, and though she had no children, she did not resume her maiden name. Hopper was appointed to the Harvard faculty as a research fellow, and in 1949 she joined the newly formed Eckert-Mauchly Corporation. Hopper never again held only one job at a time. She remained associated with Eckert-Mauchly and its successors (Remington-Rand, Sperry-Rand, and Univac) until her official “retirement” in 1971. Her work took her back and forth among institutions in the military, private industry, business, and academe. In December 1983 she was promoted to commodore in a ceremony at the White House. When the post of commodore was merged with that of rear admiral, two years later, she became Admiral Hopper.

She was one of the first software engineers and, indeed, one of the most incisive strategic “futurists” in the world of computing. Perhaps her best-known contribution to computing was the invention of the compiler, the intermediate program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer. She did this, she said, because she was lazy and hoped that “the programmer may return to being a mathematician.” Her work embodied or foreshadowed enormous numbers of developments that are now the bones of digital computing: subroutines, formula translation, relative addressing, the linking loader, code optimization, and even symbolic manipulation.. Throughout her life, it was her service to her country of which she was most proud. Appropriately, Admiral Hopper was buried with full Naval honors at Arlington National Cemetery on January 7, 1992.