Beat The Clock – why COBOL is Grace Hopper’s enduring legacy




Grace Hopper

As a seven-year-old, the ever-curious Grace Hopper dismantled seven alarm clocks to find out how they worked. Quite why the family needed seven alarm clocks was never explained, but the anecdote illustrates the curiosity that ultimately inspired a remarkable woman to create something incredible. December 9 is Admiral Grace Hopper’s birthday.  She would have been 108.

It is tempting to simply record all her life achievements. After all, it’s quite a list. However, as Melissa Pierce, the would-be director of the #TheGraceHopperFilm, Born with Curiosity is keen to point out, it would be wrong to record her life as a simple list of stuff.

As has been noted before, it is ironic that for all the money Grace has helped to generate for the IT industry, no-one has offered to fund the biopic that will bring her story to life. As Melissa notes: “Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had more than 12 films made about them, but their legacies are built on Grace’s and there isn’t one documentary about Grace and her legacy. It’s time to change that.” While our company has contributed to the film ‘fighting fund’, we also devote nearly $55m every year towards supporting her most notable achievement.

Which isn’t the Mark 1 computer. Although a landmark invention, this was a behemoth of clanking, whirring computing machinery that has long been left behind. More than 55 feet long, eight feet high, weighing five tons and driven by almost 760,000 separate pieces, the US Navy used it for gunnery and ballistic calculations until 1959. Which is when Commander Hopper created the programming language that would be her longest-lived legacy.

Computer speak

Grace Murray Hopper changed the lives of the computer industry – and the businesses that would ultimately depend on mainframe computing – by developing the Bomarc system. This became COBOL, or the common-business-oriented language that is so popular today. So popular that COBOL transactions outnumber Google searches by 200 to one.

Originally used by the US Department of Defense as a portable programming language for data processing, it became de rigueur for computer manufacturers and boosted widespread adoption. Standardized in 1968, expansions include support for structured and object-oriented programming.

COBOL’s genius is that it enables computers to respond to words rather than numbers. Perhaps that is why there are around 200bn lines of COBOL in regular use across the globe today in government agencies, finance houses, banking, insurance and other mainframe owners.


COBOL is at the heart of many organizations’ core applications and represents a better, more stable, option than rewriting or replacement. Fifty years to the good, COBOL is here to stay. Such is the ongoing, enduring business value within the core COBOL systems, that a new generation of application development staff will need to take the reins in the in the years ahead.

Micro Focus was built on COBOL and our ongoing support of Visual COBOL is reflected by continuous, ongoing and substantial investment. This includes helping students to embrace COBOL and programmers to harness the power of modern platforms, such a JVM and .NET, through Object Oriented Programming (OOP). Our portable COBOL technology currently supports 50 platforms and our Developer Days help keep ‘COBOL guys’ up to speed with all that it can do.

COBOL – the legacy

In a world where Barbie is offered as a role model for girls looking to become computer engineers, Grace Hopper remains the real deal. As Melissa says, Grace the person as much as the computer pioneer should be reflected in film. “We believe Grace humanizes and makes notable women both inspirational and relatable. We want women and girls to see themselves in her place.”

Decades on from dismantling alarm clocks, it is clear that the name of Grace Hopper was always going to be timeless.



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