Prelude: The Capture and Challenge of Discovery and Innovation, Celebrating 50 Years of the Information Age

By Whitecar, Michael | Journal of Research Administration, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Prelude: The Capture and Challenge of Discovery and Innovation, Celebrating 50 Years of the Information Age


Whitecar, Michael, Journal of Research Administration


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Introduction

From the simplest to the most sophisticated human activities, the power of computing has changed the way we interact individually, socially, governmentally, culturally, and globally. Yet have these influences been for the good or have they been less than positive? This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the implementation of COBOL, a.k.a. Common Business Oriented Language, one of the most well-known of computer fundamentals.

COBOL arose from the profound scholarship and industry of Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. "Amazing Grace," as she was known, was one of the greatest American pioneers in the history of computer science. COBOL, one of the oldest programming languages, is an acronym for Common Business-Oriented Language, which defines its primary domain in business, finance, and administrative systems for companies and governments. Obtaining her doctorate in mathematics at a time when such academic achievements were not the usual experience for American women, Admiral Hopper was eventually elevated to her Navy rank by a specific honor from the Congress of the United States because of her genius, dedication, forward thinking, and unprecedented discoveries. She was an inventor par excellence whose personal life sustained the price of dedicated scholarship.

The reflections and contributions of Admiral Hopper can be found today throughout our information industry. Just as we now develop new software or design new data chips, Admiral Hopper discovered the path to wide-spread usability from "debugging" software to developing the software engineering disciplines necessary to carry out today's demand for information. Her belief in decentralization opened new thought-provoking collaborative models that have both leap-frogged the advancement of technologies and, ironically, added to the many challenges we face today in managing the application of such new technologies.

Reflections and Impact: From Mathematician to Professor, to Programmer, to Icon

The many contributions of Admiral Hopper are well discussed in Kurt Beyer's 2009 work published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age. Among these contributions is debugging, a methodical process of finding and reducing the number of bugs, or defects, in a computer program or a piece of electronic hardware, to make it behave as expected. The terms "bug" and "debugging" were popularly attributed to Admiral Hopper in the 1940s. While she was working on a Mark II Computer at Harvard University, her associates discovered a moth stuck in a relay, thereby impeding operation; thereupon she remarked that they were "debugging" the system.

Sub-routines, as the name "subprogram" suggests, behave in much the same way as a computer program used as one step in a larger program or another subprogram. A subroutine is often coded so that it can be started ("called") several times and/or from several places during a single execution of the program, including from other subroutines, and then branch back (return) to the next instruction after the "call" once its task is done. Sub-routines today can be found in many object-oriented programming development models known as classes which represent real world activities and objects.

More famously, Admiral Hopper had a strong belief in decentralized management--a process of dispersing decision-making governance closer to the users of software applications. It includes the dispersal of administration or governance in sectors like engineering, management science, political science, political economy, sociology and economics. Decentralization has enormous significance beyond software usage or computer governance. It is fundamental to contemporary organizational systems development and the structures and substructures of institutional life, including universities and research institutions. …

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