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Kurt Beyer | Talks at Google

A Hollywood biopic about the life of computer pioneer Grace Murray Hopper
(19061992) would go like this: a young professor abandons the ivy-covered walls of academia to serve her country in the Navy after Pearl Harbor and
finds herself on the front lines of the computer revolution. She works hard to succeed in the all-male computer industry, is almost brought down by personal problems but survives them, and ends her career as a celebrated elder stateswoman of computing, a heroine to thousands, hailed as the inventor of computer programming.

Throughout Hoppers later years, the popular media told this simplified version of her life story. In Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age, Kurt Beyer goes beyond the screenplay-ready myth to reveal a more authentic Hopper, a vibrant, complex, and intriguing woman whose career paralleled the meteoric trajectory of the postwar computer industry.

Hopper made herself one of the boys in Howard Aikens wartime Computation Laboratory at Harvard, then moved on to the Eckert and Mauchly Computer Corporation. Both rebellious and collaborative, she was influential in male-dominated military and business organizations at a time when women were encouraged to devote themselves to housework and childbearing. Hoppers greatest technical achievement was to create the tools that would allow humans to communicate with computers in terms other than ones and zeroes. This advance influenced all future programming and software design and laid the foundation for the development of todays user-friendly personal computers.

Kurt grew up in a blue-collar, immigrant family in Huntington, Long
Island. Kurts Dad Karl was a baker and his Mom Ann a nurse. Kurt
was captain of the baseball and basketball teams at John Glenn High
School, an accomplished trumpet player, and received his nomination to
the U.S. Naval Academy from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan.
While at Annapolis Kurt played baseball and senior year was named
Brigade Commander, in charge of the 4500 person brigade of midshipman.
He graduated Annapolis in 1990 and was commissioned an officer in the
United States Navy. Before attending flight school Kurt continued his
education at the University of Oxford for two years. At Oxford, he
completed a masters degree and rowed for Oxford where his crew competed
in the finals of the Henley Royal Regatta in 1991. He also played
on the University basketball team which won the British University
Championship in 1992.

Following Oxford Kurt headed to Pensacola for Naval Flight School
where he graduated first in his class. Kurt flew F-14 Tomcats and was
assigned to a fighter squadron at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia
Beach. Injury cut his naval career short, and Kurt was honorably
discharged, receiving a Navy Commendation Medal and National Defense
Service Medal. In 1997 Kurt moved to California to convalesce and
complete a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. Kurt fully
immersed himself in the Bay area dot.com revolution, co-founded a
digital media start-up, and married a beautiful 4th generation San
Franciscan.

The tragedy of September 11th changed Kurts path and he returned to
Annapolis as a civilian professor to help create the Naval Academys
new Information Technology major and lectured regularly on the process
of technological innovation. He served on the Academy faculty 3 1/
2 years and helped direct the international scholarships program.
During this period the Naval Academy had the most British scholarship
winners of any American University, including 8 Rhodes, 3 Marshall,
and 4 Fitzgerald scholars. In January 2006 Kurt returned to the San
Francisco Bay area to head up full time a digital media start-up and
co-authored multiple patents (pending) on high speed digital data
processing. Currently Kurt works for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney
and advises start-ups and executives in Silicon Valley. He lives in
Mill Valley, Ca with his wife Johanna and two sons Charlie and Gus.

This talk was hosted by Boris Debic and is part of the computer history
series.

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