Amazing Grace Helped Standardize
Navy Data Processing Operations
By DAVID F. WINKLER
On Oct. 6, 2000, the Department of the Navy
awarded Electronic Data Systems (EDS) a $6.9
billion contract to oversee the integration of Navy
information systems into a service-wide Navy-Marine
Corps Intranet (NMCI). Last year, this contract was
extended to 2010 to enable EDS to continue to manage and expand NMCI.
Eventually, the massive network will link more than
400,000 workstations and laptops for 500,000 Navy
and Marine Corps users across the continental United
States, Hawaii, Cuba, Guam, Japan and Puerto Rico.
NMCI was not a first attempt at standardizing
Department of the Navy information systems. More
than 30 years earlier, the Navy faced challenges with
its automatic data processing as the demands of the
war in Vietnam forced the service to increase its purchases of mainframe computers. Since not one manufacturer could meet the Navy’s computing demands,
contracts were let to a variety of companies who built
machines that operated off variants of computer programming languages.
On Aug. 1, 1967, the Navy turned to a retired naval
reserve commander to standardize computer languages for all Navy computers that were not associated with weapon systems. Taking an initial six-month
military leave of absence from her employer, UNIVAC,
Cmdr. Grace Hopper reported to duty in the Pentagon
for this special assignment. She never returned to
UNIVAC, as the Navy kept her gainfully employed for
the next 19 years.
Hopper was well qualified for her appointed role.
In 1958, the Pentagon hosted a meeting with computer manufacturers and a short-term result was the creation of COBOL (Common Business-Oriented
Language) that drew much of its format from a language Hopper had previously created for UNIVAC.
The Navy accepted COBOL in 1960 and soon it
became the preferred programming language for
mainframe computers. Manufacturers, however,
began to toy with COBOL, creating, in effect, different
dialects that could not be understood by other manufacturers’ mainframes.
Hopper had an enormous challenge before her. In
the 1960s, the Department of Defense led the nation
in the use of computers. In 1968, the Navy had more
than 760 general-purpose computers and employed
about 18,000 people to support its data-processing
capability. Thus the service could insist that manufacturers produce new computers using a Standard
With her background as an employee of UNIVAC,
Hopper knew the industry and was able to foster a
cooperative spirit. Some manufacturers even allowed
her to test programming languages on their latest
Her greater issue would prove to be the standardization of the computers the Navy already owned.
To assist with the mission, the Navy allowed her to
select two of the top graduates from its automatic data
processing school and provided a high-grade civil servant. With her small cadre, she traveled around the
country to audit the Navy’s various mainframe computers and make recommendations.
Hopper later observed, “the Navy, like many people, is allergic to change.”
Her key to success was to identify the decision-makers and convince them that the ideas she proposed would save them time and money. Once Hopper
was able to convince a command to adopt Standard
COBOL, she employed a series of test routines on the
computer to validate the implementation. These testing procedures were considered quite innovative at
Because of Hopper’s success, other agencies followed the Navy’s lead. In 1969, the Data Processing
Management Association named Hopper its first “Man
of the Year.”
As computers advanced, so did Hopper, in age and
rank. Because of her ability to explain new technologies in ways the uninitiated could understand, she was
frequently invited to give talks.
She eventually retired as a rear admiral on Aug. 14,
1986, onboard the USS Constitution in Boston at age
79. She passed away in 1992.
Five years later, the destroyer USS Hopper was
placed in commission in her honor. ■
Source: Kathleen Broome Williams, Grace Hopper: Admiral
of the Cyber Sea (Naval Institute Press, 2004)
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical