The Story of Grace Hopper for Kids

Has your curiosity ever gotten you in trouble? Maybe you took something apart or made a mess while you were trying to find out how it worked, or maybe you’ve asked a grown-up a question they didn’t know how to answer. If so, don’t feel bad about yourself! You have something in common with some of the smartest and most innovative people in history, including the subject of today’s episode, Grace Murray Hopper. 

Grace was born and raised in New York City, and she was a very curious child. Her family had a large summer home, which they shared with her many cousins. Each of the seven bedrooms in the house had an alarm clock, and every evening, Grace’s mother would set each alarm clock. This was the early twentieth century, so these weren’t the kind of alarm your parents might have on their phone, or even a digital alarm clock. These were old-fashioned clocks with gears in them and two bells on top. When the alarm rang, a small hammer would go back and forth, quickly hitting the bells and making a loud, high-pitched ring. This kind of ringing was impossible to sleep through! If you imagine what an old-fashioned fire alarm might sound like, it would be similar to that. 

Grace was fascinated by the alarm clocks, and wanted to know how they worked. So she took one apart! But looking at the pile of gears, springs, and hands, in front of her, she still wasn’t sure. 

So she took apart another. 

Then another. 

Eventually, Grace took apart all seven alarm clocks, trying to figure out how all the tiny, complicated pieces worked together. Her mother wasn’t exactly happy about all the alarm clocks in the house being broken, but she was understanding, and she let Grace keep one clock to study.

Grace’s father also supported Grace’s curiosity. He encouraged her and her sister to get as much education as they could so they could support themselves. This was not common for girls in the early 1900s. Grace especially loved math and geometry. She used geometry to draw pictures. This is a fun way to use math – try to see what you can draw some time just using the basic shapes like circles, squares, and triangles. If you look around, you’ll notice these shapes, along with angles, lines, curves, and other things that can be described with numbers, in many things you see every day.

Grace worked hard in school, and was almost able to start college when she was sixteen! Why almost? Her test scores in math were very high, but her scores in Latin were too low. But, just as she had done with the alarm clocks, Grace didn’t quit trying after one failure. She tried again, and was able to start college the next year at seventeen. She graduated with degrees in math and physics in 1928. She went on to get a PhD in math at Yale in 1934. Eventually, she became a math professor at Vassar College.

When World War II started, Grace tried to join the Navy, which had just started accepting women. Her grandfather had been in the Navy, and she wanted to follow in his footsteps. But the Navy wouldn’t take Grace! Their reasons for rejecting her were not what you might think: they said she was valuable to the war effort as a math professor; she was too thin for her height; and she was too old at 34. This shows us another important lesson: people often don’t say no to you because they don’t like you. They might say no because of rules they have to follow, or because you’re too important! Not a bad reason to be rejected, right?

But knowing Grace, you can probably guess that this rejection didn’t hold her back. She tried again. Grace took a leave of absence from her job as a professor and volunteered for the Naval Reserves. She had to get special permission due to her weight being too low, but she got to serve in the Navy and support the war effort, just like she wanted. Not only that, she was at the top of her class in the training program! The Navy sent her to Harvard University to work on the first computer made in the United States, the Mark I.

Grace worked on programming the Mark I to help the navy solve problems on their ships. Programming a computer means giving it instructions so it will do what you want it to do. You might be wondering why Grace was given a job programming computers. But, have you ever thought about why a computer is called a computer? Well, it’s because their original purpose was to compute things, to do complex math that humans can’t do quickly. The navy used the Mark I to help them track the location of enemy ships and submarines. It could perform math quickly, and never made mistakes like human mathematicians sometimes do. But, the Mark I did need humans to tell it exactly what math to do, and that was Grace’s job. 

Early computers were programmed using numbers and symbols. You had to understand a lot of mathematics to program a computer, which is why many early programmers like Grace, had degrees in math. Programming was complicated and it was easy to make mistakes, even for an expert. So Grace would save pieces of programs that did specific things so she could use them again in new programs. She also developed a system that allowed the computer to find these pieces of code without her having to input all of it again.

After the war, in 1949, Grace went to work at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. Here, she worked on Univac, the first computer in the United States to be sold to businesses for general purposes. This got her thinking about what people were trying to do with computers, and she realized not everyone could get their job done using only the language of math, numbers and symbols. Grace thought there should be computer programming languages that were based on the English language. This would make it easier for more people to learn to program and use computers to help them do their jobs. But, in order to create this kind of programming language, she also needed to invent the technology to translate English-based commands into the mathematical language that computers understood.

And that’s exactly what Grace did! She called her translator a compiler. If you want to imagine what a compiler does, think of all the word problems you’ve seen in your math books. You might have a problem like:

“Dan has seven apples. He gives three of them to Isaac. How many apples does Dan have left?”

The English words in this sentence give us clues about what kind of math problem we need to do. We know that the special words seven and three are numbers. We know if someone gives something away, they will have fewer of that thing. This gives us a clue that we need to subtract to find the answer. Once we think it through a bit, we can figure out that we need to write a math problem, “seven minus three equals” and then compute the answer. A compiler does something similar: it has a set of rules it uses to take the commands and translate them into numbers. The rules are more complicated than the subtraction word problem we just talked about, but the idea is similar.   

At first, the men Grace worked with thought this idea was crazy. But she kept working on her ideas for years, and eventually, others who worked with computers accepted them. Grace also reached her goal of inventing the first programming language based on English words, rather than numbers and symbols. This new language became known as COBOL. It was used for decades, and is even still used today. More importantly, COBOL inspired many other computer scientists to invent new programming languages based on human language to solve different types of problems. Today there are dozens of languages, and millions of people who learn and use them everyday. 

Later Grace returned to working for the Navy. After a long career, she reached the rank of rear admiral. At the time, she was one of the highest ranking women in the Navy. She retired in 1986 at the age of 80, but even after retiring, she continued to work. She was always eager to help young people learn about computers and programming, and aside from inventing the compiler, she said this was one of her greatest accomplishments.

Grace used to have a clock on her office wall. It was the kind of clock with hands that tick off the hours, seconds and minutes, just like the alarm clocks she took apart as a child. But this clock was unique: its hands went around in the opposite direction from other clocks. Instead of going clockwise, her clock went counter-clockwise! Even though the clock went backwards, it still ticked off the hours and minutes reliably, and gave the right time. 

Grace said this clock was a reminder that you don’t have to do things the same way everyone else is doing them. If you think you have a different or better way to do something, you should try it, even if others don’t understand at first. And as she showed so many times in her life, don’t just try once. Try over and over again until you get it! If you have a good idea and work hard to make it a reality, other people will eventually notice. 

Grace never gave up when she had a goal or a  great idea, even when others around her didn’t support her. She kept working on her ideas, and showing her work to others, until they had to listen, and, often, had to admit she’d been right all along! She knew that good ideas didn’t always fit the way people had done things in the past. They might even seem a little crazy at first. But without crazy new ideas we wouldn’t make any progress.

Sources

https://stories.vassar.edu/2017/assets/images/170706-legacy-of-grace-hopper-hopperpdf.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_Hopper

History of Albert Einstein for Kids

Close your eyes and imagine a short man with gray and white hair that sticks up off his head and grows in all directions. He has a big mustache and wears a coat that is rumpled, pants that are short, and socks that don’t match. But he has a kind smile on his face and deep, thoughtful eyes. This is what Albert Einstein looked like. And it might be easy to judge him by his funny appearance, but Einstein is one of the most famous scientists of all time. And many of his big ideas changed the world! But where did Albert Einstein come from? What was his childhood like? What was his life like? Listen closely, because it all starts in Ulm, Germany on March 14, 1879 when Albert was born.

Albert was quiet and very shy as a child. It took him longer to say his first words than most kids. His parents thought this meant there was something wrong with him. They took him to the doctor, but the doctor said everything was just fine. As a child, Albert liked to play by himself. He played with blocks and built towers of cards. He was very curious and often sat and just day-dreamed. His parents thought this meant he had some kind of problem, but really he just liked to sit and think and dream and make things on his own. 

Albert also liked the play the violin. Often he and his mother played together. Albert’s mind was always imagining and wondering about the world around him. He went to school, but wasn’t learning the things that interested him, so he started searching for answers on his own. He read and found many of his answers in books and by asking others. His parents began to see how curious and bright he was and appreciate his talents, even though he was quiet and shy. 

In high school, Albert struggled in school. Kids had to sit perfectly still, wear uniforms, and march in line. If they asked questions they were punished. His teachers told his parents he’d never do anything useful in life because he was so disobedient by asking questions and speaking out of turn. These years were very frustrating for Albert, because he was curious and wanted to learn. Math was one of his favorite subjects. His parents found a book about geometry, the study of shapes, and he taught it to himself. 

Eventually, Albert was told to leave his school, because he refused to stop asking questions and wouldn’t blindly obey his teachers. He moved with his family to Italy and there spent his time hiking in the mountains and learning on his own. He read about great scientists and astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo who had great ideas. But because their ideas were different than what was believed, they were treated poorly. Albert understood these scientists because he felt he was being treated the same way. In Italy, he wrote his first scientific paper, but it received very little attention because he was young and no one thought someone his age would have great ideas. In Italy, he decided to move to Zurich Switzerland to study physics.

There he loved the Swiss people and his new college. He was able to ask tough questions and talk about them with his classmates. There he met a woman named Mileva who was also a big thinker. They enjoyed their time together and were later married. 

In Switzerland, Albert started working at the patent office. When someone comes up with an idea for a new invention, they draw up the plans and get a patent — which means no one else can take their idea. Albert’s job was to read about all of the new inventions and approve them. He enjoyed this job and was able to work so fast that he could take off early and spend time hiking and thinking. These were some of Albert’s happiest years of his life. So many marvelous ideas came to him at this time. He started writing scientific papers about his ideas and published five of them. These included big ideas about space travel and electricity. Albert was known for wearing the same wrinkled clothes every day and didn’t comb his hair, so it stuck up all over the place. He liked to spend time deep in thought rather than taking care of himself. People began to know him for his big ideas and recognized him for his funny appearance.

As Albert became more popular, he finally got his dream job — teaching physics for the university. Now he was able to spend all of his time thinking and teaching his students. The students loved their quirky professor. He was able to take difficult ideas and explain them in a simple way.

One of his big ideas was called The Theory of Relativity. This idea was that all things move at different speeds except for light. Think about how as a car passes it’s moving at a different speed as it drives by. But if you’re inside the car it doesn’t appear to be moving at all. So speed is “relative” to where you are. Another example is that the Earth is flying around the sun and spinning at incredible speeds, but because you’re standing on the Earth it doesn’t appear to be moving at all.

 Another of Einstein’s big idea was that not only are the planets moving around the Sun, but the Sun is moving through the galaxy as well, it just doesn’t appear to move because our planet is moving around it.

Some funny things about Albert is that even though he was a scientific genius he was often absent-minded, which means he forgot simple things. For example, often when he went out he forgot his keys, lost his bags, and forgot to eat. He was so focused on what went on in his wonderful brain that he often didn’t consider what was going on around him. He found simpler ways to live his life, so he could focus all his energy on thinking. For example, he wore the same clothes every day and only buttoned his top button because it took less time and energy. He often wore socks that didn’t match, his clothes were rumpled and his hair stuck all over the place. But his fans loved it and people all over the world talked about this brilliant, quirky genius.

Albert’s next job took him back to Germany, but over the years he and his wife were growing apart. He was so busy being a professor and speaking around the world that he didn’t give Mileva and his children the time they needed. Mileva decided not to move him and they divorced. Albert admitted he was not always a good father and chose writing his papers and teaching over his family responsibilities. 

While Albert was living in Germany, World War I started. He was sad to see soldiers marching down the street because he knew what war did to people. He refused to support the war and the leaders of Germany were upset at him. He could have gone to jail, but he stood up for his beliefs anyway. When World War I ended Albert was very happy.

In Germany, Albert met a woman named Elsa. They grew close and she spent her time taking care of him, making sure he ate and shaved and didn’t lose his keys. They were married. Albert loved Elsa and she loved him. 

By this time, Albert was so popular it made his life difficult. You might think being popular is a great thing, but for people who are very famous, you can’t walk anywhere without people talking to you or wanting a picture or asking for your autograph. Albert loved being alone, so this was very hard for him. He was offered a lot of money to speak and do other things, but he refused. For him, his research and his ideas were more important than money or fame.

Sadly, new problems began in Germany. Albert Einstein was Jewish, which is a race and religion. Many Jews who lived in Germany wrote to Albert and asked him to defend them because they were being treated badly. Their shops were taken from them and they were often beaten up by non-Jews. The Nazis, who had taken control of Germany, falsely blamed all their problems on the Jewish people. They burned their books and many Jews started leaving Germany. Albert spoke out against the Nazis and refused to leave even though his life was at risk. Hitler, the powerful leader of the Nazis, said Albert was a spy and eventually Albert realized it was too dangerous for him to stay. He and Elsa moved to the United States and became a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey. 

Albert’s years at Princeton were hard. He was sad to see what was happening to Jews in Germany. Then sadly Elsa died. Albert often kept to himself and played his violin. He also didn’t have as many big ideas as when he was younger.

One of Albert’s most famous ideas was an equation, E = MC2. It basically said that all things are energy. Even the hard walls around you, your body, mass are energy, too, but just in a different form. He also had the idea that if an atom could be broken it would cause a HUGE explosion, called a nuclear explosion. He worried that the Nazis might create a nuclear bomb and use it against the United States and her Allies. Even though he hated the idea that such a weapon would ever be used, he wrote President Roosevelt and told him that the United States must create the bomb first. Eventually, the United States did create an atomic bomb and used it against its enemy Japan. For the rest of his life, Albert wondered whether he should have ever shared his ideas about a nuclear bomb. But he also thought the consequence of the Nazis making it first would be even worse. 

After World War II ended, Einstein spent many years speaking out against atomic bombs. The United States and Russia had made thousands of them and it made the world a very dangerous place. Fortunately, after World War II nuclear bombs were never used. 

Albert Einstein spent the last years of his life growing old while living in Princeton, New Jersey. His hair was now white and grew widely in all directions. He was still a quirky and funny sight to see with his rumpled, mismatched clothes. He continued to play his violin and go on walks around his home. He often stopped to help people in need or invite them into his home. He was a very gentle, kind person who had changed the world with his ideas but didn’t care about money or being famous. He just wanted the world to be a peaceful place. On April 17, 1955 Einstein passed away while thinking through a problem and writing equations on a piece of paper. To his last day, he was a thinker! 

Spend a moment thinking about what it was like to be Albert. When he was young he loved to go on walks and observe the world around him. He saw everything through the eyes of wonder and curiosity. The world to him was an exciting, mysterious place. He loved to understand how it worked and dream about how the parts he didn’t understand might work. His imagination led to some of his amazing ideas. You can wonder, too. Remember in the times when you might be bored, it’s ok to be bored. Say it out loud “it’s ok to bored!” When you’re bored, you can take a deep breath and look closely at the world around you. It’s the perfect chance to see things with new eyes. 

Even though Einstein became very famous, he didn’t care about having lots of money and expensive things. He wanted the world to be fair and peaceful. He also wasn’t perfect. No one really is. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. Einstein wasn’t a very good father, but he ended up helping the world in many other ways. 

If you want to learn more about Albert Einstein we shared our favorite videos and books on our website, BedtimeHistoryStories.com. Be sure to check it out.