The Web Goes Public, First Email From Space, Grace Murray Hopper and COBOL


Grace Hopper and the Univac c. 1960

August 1, 1967

The US Navy recalls Grace Murray Hopper to active duty. From 1967 to 1977, Hopper served as the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group in the Navy’s Office of Information Systems Planning and was promoted to the rank of Captain in 1973. She developed validation software for COBOL and its compiler as part of a COBOL standardization program for the entire Navy to help develop the programming language COBOL.

The new language COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language), first designed in 1959, extended Hopper’s FLOW-MATIC language with some ideas from the IBM equivalent, COMTRAN. Hopper’s belief that programs should be written in a language that was close to English (rather than in machine code or in languages close to machine code, such as assembly languages) was captured in the new business language, and COBOL went on to be the most ubiquitous business language to date.

Hopper made many major contributions to computer science throughout her very long career, including what is likely the first compiler ever written, “A-0.” She appears to have also been the first to coin the word “bug” in the context of computer science, taping into her logbook a moth which had fallen into a relay of the Harvard Mark II computer. She died on January 1, 1992.

Hopper has made many choice observations about the new profession she helped establish. Among them:

Programmers… arose very quickly, became a profession very rapidly, and were all too soon infected with certain amount of resistance to change.

Life was simple before World War II. After that, we had systems.


Bell Labs computer center 1968

August 3, 1960

Bell Laboratories scientists conduct a coast-to-coast telephone conversation by “bouncing” their voices off the Moon.


Space Shuttle Atlantis

August 4, 1991

The first email message is sent from space to earth. The Houston Chronicle reported:

Electronic mail networks, the message medium of the information age, made their space-age debut Sunday aboard the shuttle Atlantis as part of an effort to develop a communications system for a space station… Astronauts Shannon Lucid and James Adamson conducted the first experiment with the e-mail system Sunday afternoon, exchanging a test message with Marcia Ivins, the shuttle communicator at Johnson Space Center… The messages follow a winding path from the shuttle to a satellite in NASA’s Tracking Data Relay Satellite System to the main TDRSS ground station in White Sands, N.M., back up to a commercial communications satellite, then down to Houston, where they enter one or more computer networks… The shuttle tests are part of a larger project to develop computer and communications systems for the space station Freedom, which the agency plans to assemble during the late 1990s.


Atlantic Cable, 1858

August 5, 1858

Cyrus West Field and others complete the first transatlantic telegraph cable after several unsuccessful attempts. It operated for less than a month.

Don Juan (1926)

August 2, 1926

The first Vitaphone sound-on-disc film is debuted by Warner Bros. at the Warner Theatre in New York. The sound is recorded on a 16-inch disc, playing at 33rpm. The film, Don Juan, had great success at the box office, but failed to cover the expensive budget Warner Bros. put into the film’s production.


Tim Berners-Lee at CERN

August 6, 1991

Tim Berners-Lee posts a brief summary of his idea for the World Wide Web project to the alt.hypertext Usenet newsgroup. It is the first public mention of the project.

Berners-Lee message said, in part: “The WorldWideWeb (WWW) project aims to allow links to be made to any information anywhere… The WWW project was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation. We are very interested in spreading the web to other areas, and having gateway servers for other data. Collaborators welcome!”

In Weaving the Web, Berners-Lee wrote: “Putting the Web out on alt.hypertext was a watershed event. It exposed the Web to a very critical academic community… From then on, interested people on the Internet provided the feedback, stimulation, ideas, source-code contributions, and moral support that would have been hard to find locally. The people of the Internet built the Web, in true grassroots fashion.”

Four years later, in 1995, many were still skeptical of the Web’s potential, as this anecdote from Dr. Hellmuth Broda (in Pondering Technology) demonstrates:

I predicted at the Basler Mediengruppe Conference in Interlaken (50 Swiss newspapers and magazines) that classified ads will migrate to the web and that advertisement posters will soon carry URL’s. The audience of about 100 journalists burst into a roaring laughter. The speaker after me then reassured the audience that this “internet thing” is a tech freak hype which will disappear as fast as we saw it coming. Never–he remarked–people will go to the internet to search for classified ads and he also told that never print media will carry these ugly URL’s. Anyway the total readership of the Web in Switzerland at that time, as he mentioned, was less than that of the “Thuner Tagblatt,” the local newspaper of the neighboring town. It is interesting to note though that in 1998 (if my memory is correct) the same gentleman officially launched the first Swiss website for online advertisement and online classified ads (today SwissClick AG).

IBM Mark I Album page 102

IBM Mark I (Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator), exterior designed by Bel Geddes.

August 7, 1944

The IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC)–also known as the Harvard Mark I–the largest electromechanical calculator ever built was officially presented to, and dedicated at, Harvard University. Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray in Computer:

The dedication of the Harvard Mark I captured the imagination of the public to an extraordinary extent and gave headline writers a field day. American Weekly called it “Harvard Robot Super-Brain” while Popular Science Monthly declared “Robot Mathematician Knows All the Answers.”… The significance of this event was widely appreciated by scientific commentators and the machine also had an emotional appeal as a final vindication of Babbage’s life.

In 1864 [Charles] Babbage had written: “Half a century may probably elapse before anyone without those aids which I leave behind me, will attempt so unpromising a task.” Even Babbage had underestimated how long it would take…. [The ASCC] was perhaps only ten times faster than he had planned for the Analytical Engine. Babbage would never have envisioned that one day electronic machines would come into the scene with speeds thousands of times faster than he had ever dreamed. This happened within two years of the Harvard Mark I being completed.

IBM applied the lessons it learned about large calculator development in its own Selective Sequence Controlled Calculator (SSEC), a project undertaken when Howard Aiken angered IBM’s Thomas Watson Sr. at the ASCC announcement by not acknowledging IBM’s involvement and financial support (which included commissioning the industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes to give the calculator an exterior suitable to a “Giant Brain”). Thomas and Martha Belden in The Lengthening Shadow:

Few events in Watson’s life infuriated him as much as the shadow cast on his company’s achievement by that young mathematician. In time his fury cooled to resentment and desire for revenge, a desire that did IBM good because it gave him an incentive to build something better in order to capture the spotlight.

chess playing robot 2009

Chess playing robot, 2009

August 7, 1970

The first all-computer championship was held in New York and won by CHESS 3.0, a program written by Atkin and Gorlen at Northwestern University. Six programs had entered. The World Computer Chess Championship (WCCC) is today an annual event organized by the International Computer Games Association (ICGA).


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