Dickason, Elizabeth. " Looking Back: Grace Murray Hopper's Younger Years." Chips 12 no. 2 (April 1992): 5-8.
The Navy Department Library
Looking Back: Grace Murray Hopper's Younger Years
By Elizabeth Dickason
Researching this article led me to our local library where I found a delightful book that included some little known facts on Grace's early childhood. The book "Grace Hopper, Navy Admiral and Computer Pioneer" by Charlene W. Billings gives us fresh insight into Hopper's formative years.
Born 9 December 1906, Grace was the oldest of three children, named after her mother's best friend, Grace Brewster. She described her childhood as a happy one, spending most summers at their cottage on Lake Wentworth in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Grace is followed in age by her sister, Mary, three years younger with Roger coming along two years after that. They were typical kids, playing kick-the-can, hide-and-seek and cops-and-robbers with their cousins during those lakeside summers.
Grace often thought she took "the brunt of everything." In the book, she talks about the time she and a bunch of cousins were caught climbing a tree. Because she was the highest up in the tree, she was accused of being the instigator. She lost her swimming privileges for a week. She and Mary also learned needlepoint and cross-stitch at the request of their mother. Other hobbies she enjoyed were reading and playing the piano.
She was a very curious child. Once when she was seven years old, her curiosity got the best of her. She decided to find out how her alarm clock worked. After an unsuccessful attempt at putting it back together, she ended up taking apart seven alarm clocks she found throughout the house. When her mother caught on to what she was doing, she was restricted to one clock. She carried this curiosity throughout her whole life, having a weakness for gadgets and how they worked.
Grace's father, Walter Fletcher Murray was an insurance broker, as his father was before him. Grace's mother, Mary Campbell Van Horne Murray, had a love for math, much the same way Grace did. Grace's grandfather on her mother's side, John Van Horne, was a senior civil engineer for the city of New York. When her mother was young, she went with her father on surveying trips. Special arrangements were even made for Grace's mother to study geometry, but she wasn't allowed to take algebra or trigonometry. In the late 1800s, it wasn't proper for a young lady to study mathematics seriously.
Mathematical skills were more properly relegated to keeping household accounts and managing the family's finances. Because Grace's father had hardening of the arteries both legs were amputated by the time Grace was in high school. Fear of being a widow made Grace's mother strive to be financially literate. However, Grace's father beat the odds and lived to be seventy-five.
Walter wanted the best for his children and instilled the drive and ambition that helped form young Grace. He believed his daughters should have the same educational opportunities as his son. Knowing he didn't have much money to leave them, he emphasized education so they could care for themselves. Grace said her father encouraged her to leave the usual feminine roles behind. She did just that, fighting many obstacles to serve in the U.S. Navy.
Grace attended the Graham School and Schoonmakers School in New York City, both private schools for girls, where a large part of their time was spent teaching their students to be ladies. Although at Schoonmakers School, Grace played basketball, field hockey and water polo.
When it was time to prepare for college, she flunked a Latin exam. Vassar College, where she was applying, said she'd have to wait a year to enter. Her family agreed, saying she was too young to go to college. In the fall of 1923, Grace became a boarding student at Hartridge School in Plainfield, New Jersey, finally entering Vassar the following fall at the age of seventeen.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor bringing on World War II, Grace wanted to serve her country by joining the military. The obstacles would have deterred a lesser person. She was 34 which was considered too old for enlistment, and the government had declared her occupation as a mathematics professor as crucial. Navy officials told her she could best serve the war effort by remaining a civilian. Undaunted, she managed to get special permission and a leave of absence from her teaching position at Vassar. She also wrangled a waiver on the weight requirement. Weighing in at 105, she was sixteen pounds underweight for her height of five feet six inches. Grace persevered and was sworn into the U.S. Navy Reserve in December 1943. For 43 years, she proudly served the Navy she loved so dearly.
About the Author: Dickason is the Assistant Editor of Chips.