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Who are the History Makers? Part 2…

‘History Makers & DesignSpark’ is a brand new comedy podcast celebrating cutting-edge technology and the Makers from history who made it all possible, starring Head of the Guild of Makers Lucy Rogers and the award-winning comedians Bec Hill and Harriet Braine. We take a quick peek at what defined the Makers in question in a short series of articles.

Grace Hopper the Grandma of COBOL


Grace was born in New York City to her proud parents Walter and Mary Murray on December the 9th 1906, she was the oldest of 3 children. Ever curious Grace was renowned for trying to figure out how things worked, at the age of 7, she deemed that she wanted to find out just how an alarm clock worked and promptly took 7 of them to bits. When she left University in 1928 she had obtained a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics and went on to earn a master’s degree at Yale in 1930 and also marry Vincent Foster Hopper, who was a New York University professor. A short time later Grace became a maths teacher at her former university, Vassar, before going on to earn a PhD in mathematics in 1934, by 1941 she was promoted to associate professor. Grace and Vincent divorced in 1945, however, she preferred his surname to her maiden name and decided to keep it.

Programming lightweight

Weighing in at 105lbs Grace wasn’t a physically imposing figure and during the outbreak of WWII she proved to be too small and old to join, also, her skill set deemed her of value to the war effort in a different capacity. She did manage to be sworn into the United States Navy Reserve after an exemption allowed her to enlist. There, she graduated top of her class in 1944 and she was assigned to the Bureau of Ships computer project at Harvard University.  While there she served on the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, or the Mark I Computer project as it was known.

Grace stayed with the Harvard Computation Lab until 1949, co-authoring 3 papers on the Mark I Computer before moving on to join the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. There she was part of the team developing the UNIVAC 1, the first commercial computer produced in America. Grace suggested the creation of a new computer language that used English words should be developed, to simplify its use,  but it took 3 years for her idea to be accepted by the business. When Eckert-Mauchly was finally taken over by Remington Rand, this event served as the step-change that allowed her to develop a new compiler, which became known as the A Compiler version A-0.


Grace struggled to convince the establishment that she had a running compiler that translated mathematical notation into machine code, many insisted that computers could only do arithmetic. Grace had decided that data processors should be able to write their programs in English and let the computer itself translate them into machine code, writing in code was after all, not easy at all. This concept was the beginning of the computer language that became known as COBOL.  By 1954, Grace was named as the Remington Rand’s first director of automatic programming, and under her guidance released some of the first compiler-based computer programming languages such as FLOW-MATIC and MATH-MATIC.

Speaking her language

Early in 1959, a gathering of computer experts was organised to attend a 2-day meeting known as the Conference on Data Systems and Languages. Grace served as a technical consultant during this event, and many of her former employees were part of the team that worked to define the new language called COBOL. This language combined some of the ideas from Grace’s FLOW-MATIC with some concepts from the IBM software known as COMTRAN. COBOL is an acronym for Common Business Oriented Language and went on to prove itself to be an easy to use language for business applications with no need for the extensive coding methodology that preceded it.

Grace served as the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group from 1967 to 1977 where she was promoted to the rank of captain, overseeing many projects and standard implications relating to languages such as FORTRAN. IN 1983 Grace was promoted to Commodore by special presidential appointment, which changed names to Rear Admiral and as such Grace become one of the USA Navy’s few female Admirals. Officially retiring from the Navy in 1986, she was just a busy as ever, working as a consultant for DEC, representing the company at industry forums and events, earning the name Grandma COBOL along the way,  she remained in that post until her death in 1992 at the age of 85. She was interred with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery.

John Harrison; Horologist Extraordinaire


Originating from Foulby, West Yorkshire, John Harrison was born to Henry Jr. Harrison, a carpenter, and his mother Elizabeth, on 3rd April 1693, he was the first of five children. As with most children of the day it was expected for John to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a carpenter, he had other ideas. It’s been said John’s interest in watches began, as a small boy when he was recovering from a bout of smallpox and spent many an hour studying the mechanism of a pocket watch he had been given.

Watching with fascination

His early fascination with that pocket watch certainly seems to have spurred on his interest in clock making and using his accrued skills as a carpenter by the age of 20 he had built his first Grandfather Clock. The cabinet was made of the finest oak and the mechanism was mostly wooden as well a marvellous achievement. This original clock and 2 others are still in existence today, one being displayed in the science museum in London.

During the early 1720s, John, along with his younger brother James, who was also a skilled carpenter, set about building a series of high precision Grandfather clocks incorporating innovative features such as the grasshopper escapement and the grid-iron pendulum. The grid-iron pendulum concept makes use of alternating brass and iron rods that cancel out the effect of thermal expansion that could affect a clocks accuracy and performance. These clocks are said to have been the most accurate clocks in the world at that time and one can be found in the Leeds City Museum as part of a dedicated display to John Harrison.

What John is best known for, however, is his creation of a timepiece that determined longitude during long sea voyages. Latitude can be measured utilising the height of the sun, but longitude was proving very difficult to calculate with any degree of accuracy. So determined was the British Government to solve this difficult problem, they formed the Board of Longitude in 1714 and tasked them with finding a solution. The board offered a cash prize of £20,000 to the person who could solve the issue of calculating longitude, a huge sum of money for that time period.

index_ph02_509a93206caddece10a8d5d7593ab6bc82b22f1e.jpgJohn Harrisons Sea Clock

Finding Longitude

John was determined to win that valuable cash prize and set to work for several years, constructing a device that would keep time for over 50 days without suffering any effects from temperature fluctuations, pressure, humidity or the effects of corrosion. John’s creation meant that sea navigators could find longitude by comparing the length of time they had been at sea with local time. In 1735 he presented this early version of his ocean clock to Astronomer Royal Edmond Halley, who in turn referred him to Britain’s leading watchmaker, George Graham. Both Graham and the Royal Society were suitably impressed and set about having John’s invention tested at sea during 1736.

The design proved to be both a hit and miss, faltering on its outward journey, but performing perfectly on its return trip, as a result, the Board of Longitude gave John another £500 to develop his invention further. It was on his third design attempt after he realised he hadn’t catered for the yawing motion of a vessel, the solution was found in the form of circular balance wheels. However, after 17 years of working on his design, and despite every effort, he was never happy with its accuracy.

Pocket Sized Innovation

It was with some surprise that John realised that some pocket watches made by Thomas Mudge, kept time as accurately as his sea clocks, he promptly set about redesigning his concepts in a smaller form. With the help of some of the finest craftsmen in London, along with developments in steel processing that allowed for harder pinions, he set about creating the World’s first maritime watch that could accurately measure longitude.


John Harrisons H4 Marine Chronometer

His first watch, the No.1 (H4) took six years to build, and after several extensive tests, it proved to be very accurate, however, the Board of Longitude seemed reticent to make good on their promise to pay the £20,000 reward.  John continued with his revised design, the No.2 (H5) and even enlisted the help of King George III to test it, which he did, finding it to be accurate to within one-third of a second per day. Eventually, John did receive £8,750 from Parliament for his achievements but never the official reward, he was to die just 3 years later at the age of 82.

John Harrison’s original designs and concepts continued to inspire the watchmakers who followed, John Arnold took up the mantle, but, generally, manufacturing costs and the fact that marine chronometers lasted decades meant they were expensive and not readily available to the masses. During late 1790, another watchmaker, Thomas Earnshaw began producing marine chronometers in large quantities thanks to improvements in manufacturing processes. By the early 19th century a version of John Harrison’s original design concept was in the hands of every sensible navigator of the seven seas. John Harrison’s immense contribution to successful ocean travel and the consequential improvements to travelling the oceans safely serve as the perfect legacy to his lifetime's efforts.


Keep your eyes peeled in September when the History Makers Podcasts will be available to download from DesignSpark.


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