This book launches on a flat note, but sails away after that on a great voyage. As intended, the story centers on Grace Murray Hopper, whose life is displayed as a major focal point of the emerging field of computer programming. After reading this book, I discovered a woman whose strength was in her marvelous adaptability in the years between 1944 and 1960, when computer hardware went through at least two generations, and programming changed from plugboard wiring to high-level source code.
Kurt Beyer does a good job of conveying the feeling of constantly being at the forefront of this technology, of always facing the unknown. Hopper used her imagination, creativity and knowledge to sculpt part of computer science out of that unknown. She did this better than others because she was also able to marshal the genius of others more successfully than most CEO's of the day (or of today, I suspect). And that included attracting brilliant women programmers, perhaps the first instance of a new field of study emerging with women as intellectual peers.
The book is well researched, judging by the bibliography as well as the many personal quotes we read. But you don't get a drippy Oprah bio of her family life and feelings. Instead, you get a story that Hopper herself would have enjoyed, I think.
On the other hand, I wish that the author had inserted a bit more of Hopper's technological accomplishments. We should see some of the machine code of the Mark I for evaluating the cosine function, and the flow charting used in the UNIVAC. Why not show an example of a COBOL program (I remember studying it)? It's probably on the web, but it should also be in a book like this. Speaking of the web, you might enjoy Mr. Beyer's lecture at [...]
Two small gripes. The first is a general one. Biographers and editors of people in mathematics, the sciences, and the technologies should be conversant in one of those fields. To make an analogy, a good biographer of Victor Hugo should be expected to have read the masterful novels, in French. Beyer seems to be in the proper field, since he flew F-14's. But still, the square root function is not a transcendental function. Other gaffes are strictly editorial, and inexcusable. "Tan" is a color, Mr. Editor, not a substitute for the "tangent" function in standard English. Allowing the illogical "the number of n derivatives," when what is required is "the number n of derivatives," is just as crass as allowing "ain't no way, baby," but the wrong phrase appears twice. This is because the wrong phrase looks like fine technical jargon to editors who don't know mathematics. The moral is, if you don't know the language, then you'll fake editing it, every time.
The second gripe is about Chapter 1, the flat note. Beyer bogs us down in socio-literary mumbo-jumbo about the writing of historical biographies, and almost scuttles his own book. It reads as if some feminist editor planted an earwig in his brain, and it took this chapter to excise both it and her. Take my advice, Chapter 1 is annoying and irrelevant; start with Chapter 2, and enjoy reading about an American original.