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Grace HopperAdmiral of the Cyber Sea
By Kathleen Broome Williams
Naval Institute PressCopyright © 2004 Kathleen Broome Williams
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRemember Your Great-Grandfather the Admiral
One summer afternoon when she was young, Grace Murray climbed into her little sail canoe and shoved off from the dock. She had already acquired a considerable nautical proficiency, and her mother watched indulgently from the porch as she progressed down Lake Wentworth. Suddenly, a sharper than usual gust of wind caught the little craft, capsizing it. As Grace was to recall later, in this much-repeated tale, her mother merely picked up the megaphone she kept handy for such occasions and called to her daughter, "remember your great-grandfather, the admiral." With this stout admonition not to abandon ship, Grace clung to the upturned canoe and kicked it safely back to shore.
This adventure was to become one of Grace Murray Hopper's signature tales of her youth, told and retold in talks, interviews, and articles. The story of the clocks was another in her standard repertoire. It usually ran something like this: Seven-year-old Grace had always been fascinated by the alarm clock that woke her up each morning. One day she determined to find out what made it ring. Unscrewing the back caused the wheels, springs, and cogs to cascade to the floor before she could see how they all fit together. Undeterred, Grace took apart each of the remaining six alarm clocks in the seven-bedroom house, but without any better luck than the first time. Her mother's reaction was to restrict Grace's experimentation to one clock only-a degree of restraint calculated not to dampen her daughter's enthusiasm for investigation. In later years, Grace obviously cherished this incident as indicative of her early passion to find out how things worked. She often told interviewers that she had always had a "basic drive towards technology...." Both stories, moreover, reflected her view of herself as plucky, resourceful, inquisitive, and unstoppable. Later in life she was often described as "feisty" and " strong-willed," and she said of herself that she was a maverick. What she did not recount, perhaps because it did not fit this image, was that she was also much attached to a dollhouse with flowered wallpaper, a blue mansard roof, and dormer windows. She kept the dollhouse all her life.
On a snowy day in December 1906, Grace Brewster Murray was born in her grandparents' brownstone in New York City, the first child of Walter Fletcher Murray (1873-1947) and Mary Campbell Van Horne (1883-1960). The baby, named for her mother's best friend, was ushered into a well-to-do, upper middle class family and had a privileged upbringing in a harmonious home. A few weeks after her birth, she and her parents moved into a fashionable new apartment building on 95th Street, off Riverside Drive, just north of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Grace's arrival was followed three years later by the birth of a sister, Mary Campbell (1909-2000), and two years after that by a brother, Roger Franklin Murray II (1911-98).
Both sides of the family were by then well established in New York and New Jersey, of Dutch and Scottish ancestry. Walter's father, John W. Murray, had moved with his parents from Kirkubright, Scotland, to America when he was eleven, settling on the north side of 20th Street between Eight and Ninth avenues in New York City. John's father had been a builder who worked on the reservoir that used to be behind the Fifth Avenue New York Public Library. John Murray attended New York Free Academy (later City College) and moved up to what was then the countryside at 125th Street. He had a strong sense of community, joining both the Volunteer Fire Department and the New York 7th Militia Regiment, soon to be the National Guard. When his regiment was mustered into the regular army in April 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, John Murray, who had been elected a first lieutenant, accompanied it to Washington where it was detailed to protect the capitol. John's military career was cut short, however, when he contracted typhoid that June and was mustered out. Returning home, he moved to Plainfield, New Jersey, prospered in the insurance business, and sent his two sons to Yale University. Eventually, he became president of the German American Insurance Company. During World War I, the company was confiscated from its German owners and became the Great American Insurance Company.
Grace's mother's side of the family traced its lineage back to the revolution through Russells as well as Campbells and Van Hornes. Grace would later tell interviewers that one of her ancestors was a privateer with a "well-armed brig" and that another, " Samuel Lemuel Fowler, picked up his musket on 19 April 1775 and marched from Newbury to Concord Bridge to stand up to the British." More recently, a maternal great-grandfather, Alexander Wilson Russell, had fought the Barbary pirates in Africa and saw action under Gen. Winfield Scott in the Mexican War of 1846-48. During the Civil War, he fought at Mobile Bay and Vicksburg in the Union Navy and eventually retired as a rear admiral. Alexander's grandfather and namesake had been a lieutenant in the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment during the Revolutionary War, and Alexander's brother, John H. Russell, also distinguished himself in the Union Navy in the Civil War and retired as a rear admiral in 1886. John's son and namesake, an Annapolis graduate who began his career in the navy, became commandant of the Marine Corps in the 1930s. His daughter, Brooke Russell, a distant cousin of the Murrays, married Vincent Astor, heir to the fortune of John Jacob Astor.
Although she was barely two when she met him before his death, Grace retained a lifelong impression of Great-grandpa Russell-a big man with white muttonchop whiskers and a silver-topped cane. She often referred to a meeting at his home in Philadelphia as the source of her early reverence for the naval service. The incident was surely fixed in her mind more by being told about it than by memory, but Grace was never one to miss an opportunity to use a good story. Another of her stock-in-trade tales was that Great-grandpa Russell took a dim view of women and cats in the navy. When she was commissioned, she put some flowers on his grave to comfort and reassure him.
John Garret Van Horne, Grace's maternal grandfather, was born in 1853 and lived until 1932. The original American branch of the family had come to Jersey City (then part of New Amsterdam) at the time of Petr Stuyvesant. John Van Horne graduated from New York University and became the chief civil engineer for the City of New York. He helped to lay out the streets in Pelham and the Bronx. Grace loved to accompany him on these expeditions and recalled with pleasure being allowed to help him by holding up the red-and-white-striped surveyor's pole and watching him figure angles and intersections. Mary Van Horne, Hopper's mother, grew up in a brownstone on 69th Street. One of her friends was Marie Borden of the Borden milk family.
Surrounded by books in their home at 316 West 95th Street, Grace was raised in a family where intellectual curiosity was encouraged and acumen rewarded. Like his father, John, Walter Murray was an insurance broker. He was a graduate of Andover Academy and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale. He started out in his father's German American Insurance Company but later formed his own company, R. F. Murray & Bro., with his older brother Roger. Grace's mother, Mary, is remembered for her love of mathematics and intellectual games and puzzles of all sorts. She used to do the New York Times crossword every Sunday, carefully copying it onto graph paper first, so that someone else could use the original. She, too, like her daughter after her, had sometimes accompanied her engineer father on his surveying trips in New York City. Although special arrangements had been made to allow her to study geometry in school, her formal mathematical education went no further. Nevertheless, she was very intelligent and well informed and had strong opinions on everything, particularly world politics, and delighted in expressing her views freely. Her son once remarked that, during his mother's youth, it was unthought of for a girl to go on to college but that she was determined her daughters should do just that. This notion was reinforced in 1915 when her husband, who suffered from hardening of the arteries, submitted to the only procedure then available, amputation of his leg. His children were eight, five, and three.
Soon, Walter Murray's other leg was also removed at the knee. At a time when few women drove, his wife went right out and bought a car, a Model-T Ford, and when he was well again, drove her husband to work every day. Throughout his long recovery, Mary took up much of the burden of running the household that would normally have fallen to Walter. It was she who paid the bills, balanced the accounts, and figured the taxes. "She was Dutch, you know," her daughter Mary said of her mother years later, as though that was sufficient to explain her fortitude.
Against the odds, Walter Murray survived for many years after his double amputation, dying in 1947 at the age of seventy-four. His insurance business thrived and he got around on wooden legs and two canes, even continuing to play golf. Totally unselfconscious about his legs, he loved to tease his children about how seldom he had to change his socks-only when they got dusty. A slender, bald man with just a fringe of hair, he was very self-sufficient and seldom asked anyone to do anything for him. He never complained about anything and was always cheerful. Still, he was also aware of his shortened life expectancy because of his poor circulatory system and was insistent that his daughters be educated to support themselves should they need to. In the early twentieth century, middle-class young women were generally prepared only for marriage and motherhood. The Murrays' determination to see their daughters schooled for employment was rare.
All three children adored their father and seem to have felt a pressure to live up to his high standards. After all, if he could thumbtack his socks to his mahogany legs, then there was no obstacle they should not be able to overcome. Looking back after more than eighty years, Grace's sister Mary remembered what fun she and her brother Roger had had together. Grace, however, she pronounced to be "kind of a bore." Perhaps she became that way, her sister speculated, because from an early age their mother put on Grace the burden of taking care of her younger siblings. "We always had maids and everything," recalled Mary, "but Grace was supposed to tell us what to do."
As was customary in that day and for people of their circumstance, the Murrays also employed a nanny to help care for the children when they were young. Grace remembers being taken with her sister to play in Riverside Park in the afternoons. Every couple of months or so, Grace and her family would take a ferry across the Hudson-there were no bridges nearby, and no tunnels yet-and then ride the Jersey Central down to Plainfield to spend the weekend with their Murray grandparents. The extended family was close and everyone went, all the children and grandchildren. The Walter Murrays were also frequent visitors at Grace's maternal grandparents' on 69th Street. On the weekends, Mary Murray would pile all the children into the car and take them to historic or cultural sites in the city. Later, they had a subscription to the Saturday morning lecture series at the Natural History Museum and the Philharmonic Children's concerts. Mary pursued her determination to have her children know their city well with the same sort of persistence later seen in her oldest child. Years later, Grace remarked that she had probably been to every single museum in New York. The Murray children were never spoon-fed, though; they were encouraged to have new ideas and to innovate. Their ideas were taken seriously, carefully evaluated, and good ones were rewarded with a pat on the back. The children were also expected to hold their own in the debates the whole family enjoyed so much. Grace learned at the dinner table how to make an argument and back it up convincingly.
Like many girls of her time and class, Grace attended private girls' schools. She went to the Graham School at 42 Riverside Drive, a few blocks from home. The school, which marked its centenary when Grace was nine, was one of the oldest for girls in New York City and was older than the well-known Seven Sisters women's colleges, to which many Graham School graduates aspired. Nearby Barnard College, for example, was barely twenty-five years old that year, and Vassar College, just up the Hudson River, which Grace would later attend, was only fifty-five years old. The Graham School boasted an illustrious faculty: Elihu Root, later secretary of state, secretary of war, and U.S. senator from New York, was one of many well-known former teachers. The school was also just around the corner from the venerable Collegiate School for boys, the oldest independent school in the United States, where Grace's brother went. The Collegiate School was affiliated with the West End Collegiate Church next door-an outgrowth of the Dutch Reformed Church-that the Murrays attended.
In general, women's career opportunities were highly circumscribed until major changes began to occur in the 1960s. Yet even at a time when there were still many restrictions, it had been possible to view progress with optimism. In an address celebrating the Graham School's centenary, noted educator of women Dean Virginia Gildersleeve of Barnard College contrasted her present educational preoccupations with the prevailing attitudes of one hundred years earlier. To make her point, she quoted a member of the Board of Aldermen of Plymouth, Massachusetts, who in the early nineteenth century had emphatically declared himself "opposed to educating girls. A woman might come into the room when I was writing a letter and look over my shoulder and say, 'that word is spelled wrong.' I should not like that." Dean Gildersleeve pointed out to the listening girls the advances that had occurred in women's education since then. Nowadays, she explained, she had constantly to "grapple with the complexities of a college curriculum and try to figure out how much calculus and psychology and anthropology Sarah Smith may reasonably be expected to absorb in a given time." Moreover, she continued, energetic reformers were at that very moment urging on her "the necessity of providing courses in vocations for women, advisers to inform our students concerning the multifarious courses open to women today, and psychological tests to determine which they should enter." Twenty-seven years later, Gildersleeve, still a Barnard dean, played an important part in opening the way for women to join the navy.
Excerpted from Grace Hopper by Kathleen Broome Williams Copyright © 2004 by Kathleen Broome Williams. Excerpted by permission.
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