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A Coat of Arms for an Alumna

June 12, 2017

All the schools at Yale have a coat of arms, and now Grace Hopper College has one, too. Formerly called Calhoun, the residential college on Elm Street was renamed in February by a vote of the Yale Corporation in honor of Graduate School alumna Grace Murray Hopper (PhD 1934, Mathematics). Hopper was a groundbreaking computer pioneer and naval officer.

The coat of arms, which will become official on July 1, bears this heraldic blazon (aka description): “Azure semé of Plates and Billets Argent, a Dolphin embowed Or; on a Chief Argent a Fess engrailed Sable.” In plain English, it’s a blue shield overlaid with a white pattern of circles and rectangles, a gold dolphin, and black scalloping.

Here’s an explanation of the medieval terminology, thanks to art historian Stephen Scher (BA, 1956; PhD 1966, History of Art), one of the designers of the coat of arms: Azure is Yale’s blue color and also stands for the sea, since Hopper served for many years in the U.S Navy. Plates (disks) and Billets (bars) Argent (silver) are meant to suggest zeros and ones — her contributions to computer science. Semé means that the circles and lines are spread across the background. The Dolphin Or (gold) was considered to be the monarch of fishes, associated with divine protection and guidance for sailors. It refers primarily to Hopper’s career in the Navy. The Chief is the band at the top, and the Fess is the Sable (black) horizontal bar, which is called engrailed because it has points.

I am a medievalist, so I found it necessary to study a number of subjects connected with medieval culture: heraldry, falconry, arms and armor, in addition to medieval art,” Scher says. After earning his PhD, he taught at Brown for twelve years, becoming chair of the department. Although he left academia to assume ownership and direction of his family’s chemical manufacturing business, he continued to be involved with art history and museums. His personal collection of commemorative medals is currently on display at the Frick Collection in New York. Although he has retired, Scher still teaches, publishes, and works on museum projects and exhibitions and is an active member of the Association of Yale Alumni, which awarded him the Yale Medal, AYA’s highest honor, in 2015.

In addition to Scher, two other Yale alumni worked to create the coat of arms. University Printer John Gambell (MFA 1981) led the project and Jonathan Corum (BA,1995), science graphics editor at The New York Times, produced the final design based on Gambell and Scher’s preliminary sketch.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992) led a long and distinguished life. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College, earned her master’s degree in mathematics from Yale and began teaching at Vassar while completing her PhD under computer pioneer Howard Engstrom. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, she joined the U.S. Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve) and was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University, where she and fellow officers worked on top-secret calculations — computing rocket trajectories, creating range tables for new anti-aircraft guns, and calibrating minesweepers. In 1949 she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia as senior mathematician. The company, which was soon acquired by Remington Rand, had developed the first electronic computer (the ENIAC) under Army contracts. As head programmer for Remington Rand, Hopper worked on the UNIVAC I, and in 1952 her team developed the first computer language compiler. She was influential in promoting COBOL, which was the most widely used computer language in the world by the 1970s. 

Throughout her career in the private sector, Hopper remained a Navy reservist. When she retired as a rear admiral at the age of 79, she was the oldest serving officer in the Armed Forces. At a celebration in Boston on the USS Constitution to commemorate her retirement, Hopper was given the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat decoration awarded by the Department of Defense. She was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Hopper collected more than 40 honorary degrees, and all across the country, scholarships, professorships, awards, and conferences were named after her. In 1972 the Graduate School gave her its highest honor, the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal, and in 1991 President George Bush awarded her the National Medal of Technology. In 2016, President Barack Obama posthumously conferred on her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of her remarkable contributions to the field of computer science. And now, a residential college at Yale bears her name and has its very own coat of arms.