In Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories for Little Children, an animal’s defining feature (a camel’s hump, for example) is made to seem as though it were the inevitable outcome of the animal’s origin (the hump was punishment for refusing to do a full day’s work). The lazy historian often succumbs to just-so history—a parade of inevitabilities that leads inexorably to today. Avoiding that temptation is a challenge for every biographer, as illustrated by Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age , Kurt Beyer’s frequently able account of computing pioneer Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.
Beyer, a former professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, adds needed nuance and complexity to orthodox histories of computing, in which legendary companies like IBM dominate, rolling out game-changing innovations like computer RAM only when it is ready, holding onto old technologies, such as punch cards, when they aren’t.
But computer history often didn’t evolve to the tune of IBM’s innovations. In Breyer’s at-times gripping biography, a visionary woman invents the modern compiler; spearheads the creation of the world’s most popular computer language, Cobol; comes up with the concept of the computer bug; and as early as the Univac, advances the electronic memory technologies that would eventually replace those punch cards.
When Beyer sticks to the unfolding story of Grace Hopper’s remarkable life—the rich middle section of his book—the narrative of clashing industry titans battling for the future of computing is thoroughly absorbing. However, this reader’s interest could be plotted on a bell curve. The beginning gets bogged down in pages of methodological throat clearing, while the end devolves into a digital bestiary of long-forgotten computer languages and protocols.
Worse, instead of telling the story chronologically, Breyer often teases us with a big plot point, coming back to it only in a later chapter. In a biography this jumping around leads to a form of revisionism—a just-so story, if you will. Hindsight may be 20/20 as to the facts, but it distorts history in the telling—and it’s the one thing no actual participant in a life story can ever possess.
About the Author
Margo Anderson is an author and science writer based in Massachusetts. As of October 2020, she is also IEEESpectrum‘s news manager.