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

The History of Computer Science for Kids

What do you think about when you think of a computer?  Do you have a computer in your house or at your school?  What types of things do you do with it?  Have you ever wondered how it works?

There are many, many things you can do with a computer.  It can help you with homework, you can play games on it and you can easily find out information that you need, like where to order pizza. 

Computers are now so common in western countries that we sometimes take them for granted.  But computers weren’t always in homes and schools.  In fact not too long ago, people hadn’t even heard of computers. 

The first “computers” were ancient tools that were used to do addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Some early examples of this would be the ancient Chinese math device known as the abacus.  These older tools were in some way computers because they did what computers do: take information and turn it into logical operations.  Logical operations are instructions that someone gives a computer and it tells the computer what to do. Older tools still required humans to do things to make them work.  But modern computers use power and are able to be programmed to do things automatically. 

The first computer as we would think of one today was created in 1823 by a man named Charles Babbage in England.  Charles Babbage invented all the parts that are now used for a modern computer. He called the machine he was working on the “Difference Engine” but unfortunately he never finished it. 

Ten years later, another man named George Scheutz read about the “Difference Engine” and was excited about what Babbage had been working on. Together with his son Edvard, Scheutz began to work on a smaller version. Twenty years later, by 1853, the father and son had constructed a machine that could process 15-digit numbers and calculate fourth-order differences. This was very advanced programming for a machine at that time. 

Their machine won a gold medal at the Exhibition of Paris in 1855, and later they sold it to the Dudley Observatory in Albany, New York.  The Dudley Observatory later used it to calculate the path of the planet Mars.

One of the first business uses of a computer was by the Census Bureau in the United States.  It used punch-card equipment to count information for the 1890 census. A census is an official count of a group of people to get information about them.  It’s something governments do to learn more about people living in their country.

In 1911 the company who made that computer joined another company to start a brand new company.  In 1924, it became known as the International Business Machines or IBM.  It is still one of the largest and most famous computer companies in the world. 

The first computers were around the size of a large room. Isn’t it crazy to think a computer as small as the one in your phone that fits in your pocket used to be the size of a large room? 

The next changes came in the 1940s during World War II.  Alan Turing, a man who worked for the British military invented an electronic computer called Colossus. This machine was used to break codes used by the German army in World War II.  The Colossus computer was kept secret until long after the war ended, so Turing and others did not become famous for inventing this machine until later.

Computers in the 1950s, after the second world war had ended, were used for research on the design of wind tunnels and would do other different things, like generate random numbers or predict the weather.

By the 1950s, programmers were using languages to tell the computer what they wanted it to do.  At first this was written by hand and punched into cards and fed into the machines.  Later, computers were designed that could be typed on using keyboards.

As old fashioned as they were, these first electronic machines were quite useful in science and engineering. They were able to do math problems way faster than a human ever could. They were also used to guess who would win an election for president.  A machine called the UNIVAC predicted president Eisenhower would defeat his opponent in an election after only 7% of the votes were in.  The UNIVAC’s prediction was very close: it said Eisenhower would win 438 electoral votes, and he ended up with 442.

Computers continued to improve through the 1970s and 1980s.

Do you enjoy playing video games? The first two computers games made were called Asteroids and Lunar Lander. Have you heard of them? They were the start of a very popular hobby in America: playing video games.

Computers today can do all kinds of things.  They are literally a machine that takes what you put into it, and then gives you some information back. So you give it a command, just like you would give to your dog.  But instead of telling your computer what to do, you type into it or use a mouse or even talk to it.  And your computer follows the command to give you the result you want. These are pretty amazing machines when you think about it!

Computers today have something called a microprocessor that can do math very quickly. They also have a memory called RAM. This stores all the information you need when you’re not using it. They also have fans to keep them cool, otherwise they’ll get too hot.

People use computers every day at work, at school, and at home. Computers are used in factories to control how things are made and in offices to keep records. People also use computers for sending pictures and emails, researching information and all sorts of activities.

Computers and the things you can do with them continue to develop.  Just think about all of the changes that humans have seen to computers in the last 150 years.  We have gone from having no electric computers at all to having devices that we can carry around in our hands, called smart phones.  It is incredible when you think about the pace at which computers have changed and how they have impacted our lives.

None of the things you like to do on the internet or movies you watch and video games you play would be possible without computers. Without computers you wouldn’t be listening to this story! Computers are so amazing they seem like magic and we forget that someone had to design them. 

What’s really exciting is you can do this too. Kids of all ages have learned to design their own games and apps. This is called programming or coding. A free website to start learning to design your own games is called Scratch. It makes it very easy for kids to get started. Go to scratch.mit.edu to try it out. Some school and libraries have “code clubs” where kids learn how to program computers. If you’re interested in how your library can have a code club, too, a good friend of mine designed a way to make that happen. Visit prenda.co (spell out) to learn more about how your school or library can have its own code club. 

What would you do if you could design a computer to do whatever you wanted? Would you design a game or a cool app? The possibilities are truly endless.

Tim Berners-Lee and the Invention of the Internet for Kids

How are you listening to this podcast today? On a computer, a cell phone, or a smart home device like Alexa? Whatever device you’re using, it connects to the internet. The internet is central to so many things we do today, but have you ever wondered what exactly it is, or how it got to be what it is today? In this episode, you’re going to find out!

Our story begins in 1955 in London England with the birth of Tim Berners-Lee. Both of Tim’s parents were scientists who helped build one of the first computers in the 1950s, the Ferranti Mark 1. Tim enjoyed playing with model railroads as a child, and he learned a lot about electronics from this hobby. He went on to study physics at the University of Oxford in England, where he continued to tinker with electronics in his spare time, building a computer inside an old TV. He graduated with a degree in physics. 

Tim worked as a programmer for many years after graduating, and learned about many technologies along the way. Eventually, he got a job working at CERN, a European nuclear research agency. At CERN, Tim’s first job was to help people communicate over computer networks and use data stored on them in order to do their jobs. But Tim was frustrated to find that all these computers worked in different ways, so it was difficult to get them to talk to one another. Tim wanted to make it easier for people to communicate and work together using these computer networks. 

In the early 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee helped to invent not one, not two, but three key, related technologies that helped the internet become more widely available. He developed the “www” or World Wide Web system (you may have noticed this in website addresses); HTML, or HyperText Markup Language; and the first web browser. 

We’ll talk about each of these in more detail later, but before that, I should go over a few basic things about how the internet works. The internet actually existed before Tim Berners-Lee’s contributions. It’s just a name for a system of computers that are connected to each other — a network. Computers on a network can send and receive messages to and from other computers on the network, or to other networks There are two main types of computers that you need to know about to understand the internet: servers and clients. Servers store information like email or documents, and send or “serve” that information to clients when they request it. Clients are the computers that you and I use to go online. 

The details of this can get a little confusing, but Tim Berners Lee himself actually has a good way of describing the process. He compares it to a mail system. Say you drop a letter in the mailbox. Your letter is like the information you’re sending over the internet. The workers in the post office, similar to a server, look at the address on the letter, and decide where to send it next. That letter might go through a half dozen or more post offices on its way to your house, getting a little closer to you with each one. Eventually, the mail carrier drops it in your mailbox, which is like the client computer.  Unlike with paper mail, all this happens in the blink of an eye on the internet, although in the early days, it could take a bit longer.

Actually, in the early days of the internet, there were no webpages at all. The internet was mostly a tool for scientists to communicate with each other, and it was entirely text-based – no photographs, videos, or music. There were various computer networks in the early days. One of the first was called Arpanet, and it was created by the United States government. It had just four computers on it at first, all of them at universities or government research facilities.  These researchers used very basic tools like File Transfer Protocol to share documents, or simple email systems. 

Internet access expanded to the general public in the 1980s, but it was still far from the internet we know today. There were no viral tik tok dances, cat memes or Wikipedia. It was still used as a communication tool for people with technical knowledge. The systems they used were mostly text-based, meaning they had no graphics.

But Tim Berners-Lee and his three inventions would change everything. The early 1990s were a turning point in the development of the internet, the time when the web really began to look something like what we know today. 

Tim developed the first invention with his colleague at CERN, Robert Cailliau. The World Wide Web, or WWW, is the system used by servers — those computers where your websites are stored — to find documents on the internet. What I’m calling a “document” in this case might be a webpage, a photo, or a music or video file. In the WWW system, every document on the web has a Universal Resource Locator, or URL. That may sound like fancy techno-babble, but I’m sure you’ve seen one. It’s a web address, like www.bedtimehistorystories.com. These addresses can be used by anyone to link to any page on the internet, and they’re usually pretty easy to remember. The very first world wide web server was actually Tim’s work computer at CERN!

HTML is short for HyperText Markup Language, and it’s a computer language used to encode or “mark-up” documents so that a web browser can read and display them in a way that is easy for people to read and understand. HTML tags mark where specific elements of a document are. There are HTML tags for paragraphs, images, links, and most of the other things you would see on a webpage.  

Of course, in order to be useful for displaying web pages, HTML needed a program designed to read and display it. Tim also invented the first program to read and display HTML documents, which he called a browser. Today, there are dozens of browsers, like Chrome, Edge, and Safari, but the first one was called World Wide Web. Since CERN was not interested in paying people to develop web browsers beyond this, Tim encouraged the growing online community of web developers to volunteer their time to create a better browser. In 1993, the Mosaic browser was released by a team at the University of Illinois. Since then, this model of using volunteers from across the world has helped create many important web technologies and products. 

Finally, the managers at CERN made a decision that turned out to be very important for the future of the web: They decided to make Tim’s inventions open standards, meaning anyone could use them. This meant that people around the world could set up their own web servers and create pages using HTML, and they could link to any other webpage on the internet. Likewise, anyone in the world who had a computer and an internet connection could use a browser to view those pages. You didn’t have to be a computer scientist, or an academic, or even know what a server is. As a result, today there are:

  • Almost 2 billion websites on the internet
  • Almost 5 billion internet users
  • Around 7 billion Google searches per day
  • Around 7 billion YouTube videos viewed per day and…
  • Thousands of podcasts you can listen to at any time!

Tim Berners Lee saw a system–the early internet–that had a lot of potential, and came up with ways to improve it and make it vastly more useful for people all over the world. He has won many awards for his achievements: he was knighted by the queen of England in 2013, and won a prestigious computing prize called the Turing Award. He was the key force behind the modern internet, but he also made sure that anyone with the right skills could improve the systems he developed, which is what allowed the world wide web to explode in popularity and accessibility. He has continued to work throughout his life to keep the internet a free and open system that anyone can access.

Tim is a great example of someone who was curious and used his skills to design things that would be useful to other people. He liked to tinker, which means try out new things and play around with them, until they become a useful invention. And when he did design something that was useful he didn’t keep it to himself. He found a way that people all over the world could benefit from it. Considering others is important to do in all of our actions.

We hope you enjoyed this episode about the Invention of the Internet and Tim Berners Lee and be sure to tune in next Monday for a new episode.

The History of Minecraft

Have you heard of Minecraft? If so, have you ever wondered how it came to be? How is a video game made and how does it grow from its first player to millions of players all over the world? Listen closely, because today you’re going to find out.

The story of Minecraft goes back to the year 1979 in Stockholm, Sweden when a boy named Markus Persson was born. Growing up, Markus’s father had one of the early personal computers called a Commodore 128. Markus first learned how to program the computer when he was just seven years old! Programming is when you type instructions into a computer to make it do something. Markus created his first basic video game when he was eight years old. When he got older, he worked for a company programming video games for the Internet. This company was called King. In the evenings, Markus enjoyed creating his own games. Over time he shared them with friends and other people online. After playing games like Infiminer, Dwarf Fortress and Dungeon Keeper he had the idea to create a game with a blocky visual style and RPG elements. RPG means role playing game and usually means you can find loot in the game and build up your character over time. He programmed this new game in a language called Java and decided to call it Minecraft. 

In May 2009 Markus released the first version of Minecraft and shared a video of it on YouTube. He made it available online and people played it and gave him ideas about how to make it better. This is called collaboration and a great way to improve anything you create. In Minecraft players explored a 3D blocky world, mined ore and other elements and used the materials they mined to craft tools and build buildings or earthworks. One reason Minecraft was different from other games, is it allowed players to use their imagination and be creative. Similar to a toy like Lego, using Minecraft players could use the blocks to bring their imaginations to life.

A year later Markus released the next version of Minecraft. This version had new items, new blocks, new mobs (or non-player characters, or NPCs for short) and a new survival mode. At the time he was still working for someone else’s company, but eventually he left that job so he could focus all of his time and effort on making Minecraft better. He started his own video game company, hired other programmers and business-people to help their company grow, and named it Mojang. By this time millions of people had bought Minecraft and were playing it on their own and with friends. Players loved the freedom Minecraft gave them to explore the interesting and diverse worlds and use the elements within it to express themselves and be creative. In Survival Mode players crafted items and built shelters during the day, so they could protect themselves from zombie attacks at night.  

Over the next few years Markus and Mojang continued to make Minecraft better. They fixed bugs in the software (a bug is a problem in the software) and added new items and new elements that made Minecraft more fun and interesting. 

By the year 2014 Mojang had sold over 17 million copies of Minecraft and it had become one of the best selling computer games of all time. The same year Microsoft bought Minecraft and Mojang for 2.5 billion dollars! This gave Microsoft not only the game, but ownership over the intellectual property — which means they could sell or make anything using the Minecraft name. 

Microsoft continued to improve on Minecraft and also made versions for the Xbox and Playstation and a Pocket Edition for mobile devices like Android and iPhones and tablets such as the iPad.

Another reason Minecraft has become popular, is that it allows its players to modify or “mod” the game. This means if you have the idea for a new weapon or skin for your character, or a new type of block or element in the game — if you take the time to learn the coding skills, you can create whatever you want in the game. This has led to thousands and thousands of unique “mods” that players create and make available to other players. Minecraft is the way many people first learned how to write code. They were interested in “modding” Minecraft, so they read books or online articles and figured out how to do it by writing computer code. For any kids who are interested, there are many great websites out there that teach kids how to code or “mod” Minecraft.

Over the years, the Minecraft community has spread across the world. To date there are around 126 million users. Some players have become famous sharing their gameplay on YouTube and to date, Minecraft is the most watched video game on YouTube. A few of the most popular YouTubers are Stampy, PrestonPlayz, TheAtlanticCraft and Popular MMOs. But don’t be deceived that this job is an easy one. YouTubers who have gone far have spent countless hours perfecting their craft and presentation. Preparing videos to share with their fans takes many hours of focus and dedication. 

With such a huge community, Minecrafters now meet once a year for a Minecraft Convention called MineCon. At Minecon they meet at a huge convention center in different cities around the world and come together to play Minecraft, meet YouTubers, make costumes, and learn more about their favorite creative video game. The first Minecon was held in November 2011 at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. More recently, Minecon Live is streamed online so players all over the world can tune in to join in the fune, too. 

Often Minecrafters join together and work on huge worlds and creations. Looking on the Internet we found cities with hundreds of buildings, a gigantic Space Shuttle, castles from Lord of the Rings, and a Spanish Galleon. The planning and dedication to create these structures is pretty amazing if you think about it.

With its popularity, Minecraft has become more than just a video game. Now it has movies, several book series, toys, t-shirts, action figures and all types of collectibles to give its fans plenty of other mediums to experience and enjoy their favorite game world. 

Minecraft is considered one of the most important games of the last 20 years and in 2010 it was inducted into the video game hall of fame.

It’s pretty interesting to learn how things come to be, right? Often we see them or play them in the case of Minecraft and just take them for granted. But the original creator and thousands of programmers and designers and fans have put countless hours into making games like Minecraft into what they are now. Have you ever had the idea for a video game or other creation you’ve dreamed up in your imagination? If so, take the next step and use a pencil and paper to write down your ideas. Create a story and draw a few pictures of what it might look like. If you’re interested in coding there are plenty of great tools out there for kids like Scratch, CodeAcademy, Code.org and CodaKid is one of our favorites. Also, ask if your library uses Prenda Code Club. You can learn more about it at PrendaCodeClub.com. It’s actually a website I helped create, so I recommend checking it out.