She was 15 pounds below minimum weight for the Navy when she joined, but she had a mighty mind. Admiral Grace Hopper changed the Navy. And your world.
She graduated from Vassar College in math and physics then took a doctorate from Yale in math. She joined the Navy in World War II because it needed mathematicians to build the massive machines that computed tables of distance, gun elevation, projectile weight, windage and other factors for precise naval gunnery. Almost immediately she saw something other mathematicians didn’t see: computers could talk.
They weren’t just number crunchers to Grace. They could do much, much more if they were given a simple language that would bring the advantages of gigantic computing power and enormous data storage to common uses.
While working on the early computers she developed a “compiler,” a kind of translating machine that turned plain-language needs into a set of mathematical commands that retrieved number data from storage banks, performed thousands or millions of math operations, and provided real-world answers.
In 1959 she was crucial in devising the first broad-based computer language, COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language). It is the root of the many computer operating systems we use today.
Then-Captain Grace worked with the National Bureau of Standards to develop self-testing capabilities so a computer could “de-bug” itself. She coined this word when she extracted a fried moth disrupting one of her computers.
She led the Navy away from a few giant computers to interconnected, smaller, scattered computers, opening the door to the internet. You are reading plain language words from my small computer on your web-connected small computer. Thank you, Grace.
In 1985, at 79, she was promoted to rear admiral of the United States Navy Reserve. She said, “The most important thing I've accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, 'Do you think we can do this?' I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back 'em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir 'em up at intervals so they don't forget to take chances.” She died in 1992 at 85.
Admiral Grace Hopper received many awards and decorations but the Navy’s most sincere tribute came in 1996 when it named the guided missile cruiser DDG-70, USS Hopper. Naturally, its sailors call their ship “Amazing Grace.”
Jan Adkins successfully tackles the art and science of 10,000 years of bridge building and imparts a lot of historical drama along the way. The process is given fascinating life in this accessible study, wonderfully illustrated by Jan Adkins himself. Ranging from ancient Rome to the present day, from simple log bridges to marvels of industrial technology, and from well-known landmarks to little-known feats of engineering and art, this book gives readers a new appreciation for that most familiar of structures, the bridge.
Jan Adkins is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Amazing Grace." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Jan. 2018,
Most disasters are a cascade: small failures and minor circumstances, one leading to another, blossom into a cataclysm. On January 16, 1919, a cascade of tremendous size was poised above Boston’s North End.
The weather was one factor: unusually warm for winter.
Purity Distilling Company fermented and distilled molasses to make rum and alcohol. The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting sales of alcoholic beverages, was due to be passed the very next day. This may have prompted Purity to collect as much molasses as possible.
The enormous tank holding the molasses was about 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, holding 2,300,000 gallons. It was poorly built of thin steel painted brown to hide its leaks. Local families often collected some of the dripping molasses to sweeten their food. The unseasonably warm temperature quickly rose from 2° F (-16.7° C) to 40° F (4.4° C), expanding the liquid, and natural fermentation produced CO2 increasing tank pressure.
Just after noon, North End families felt the ground shake and heard a sound like a machine gun— the tank’s rivets popping out. The big tank exploded, sending a 25-foot wall of molasses roaring down the hill toward Commercial Street at about 35 miles an hour. In front of the molasses went a blast of air that blew some folks off their porches and tumbled others along the street like rag dolls. Homes and buildings were destroyed, smashed from their foundations. Horses pulling wagons were swept away. The steel girders of the Boston Elevated Railway were buckled, knocking a rail-car off the tracks.
Twenty-one people were killed and more than a hundred were injured. Many were saved by Massachusetts Maritime Academy cadets who rushed off their docked training vessel and plunged into the brown goo to rescue people. It’s difficult to know how many dogs, cats and horses died.
As you can imagine, the clean-up was awful. Firehoses from hydrants and harbor fireboats washed away as much as possible. Boston Harbor was brown for months. Sightseers tracked the goo back to homes, into hotels, onto pay-phones and onto doorknobs. Everything Bostonians touched was sticky for months.
Some say that on a hot summer day along the North End’s docks, the sickly sweet smell of molasses lingers. Bostonians can smile at the Great Molasses Flood now, but in January of 1919, that cascade of disasters was deadly serious.
Jan Adkins is an author, an illustrator, and a superb storyteller. Read about him on his Amazon page. He is also a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "The Great Boston Molasses Flood: How Can a Tragedy Sound Funny?"
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 19 Jan. 2018,
In 1961 the United States was losing the Space Race with the USSR. Our best rockets were blowing up on the launch pads.
But on January 31, 1961, we were ready to send our first astronaut into space on a long, high arc. He was only three feet tall. His name was Number 65. (If the rocket blew up, a “named” animal would sound bad in the news . . ) When asked by radio, 65 would press sequences of buttons on the flight control panel, then receive a banana pellet reward.
The blast off from Cape Canaveral (now Cape Kennedy) wasn’t perfect. The Redstone rocket didn’t blow up, but the launch damaged the passenger pod’s hull. Also, the controls didn’t shut off on time and pushed the rocket much higher, much faster than planned. Ham traveled at 5,800 miles an hour, and reached a then-record high of 155 miles! This put his reentry landing far beyond the U.S. Navy ships sent to retrieve him. The pod splashed into the ocean, but water poured into the damaged pod. 65 was sinking! Two hours later a helicopter picked up the passenger pod just in time.
65 was a hero, so he was given a proper name: Ham. He appeared on the cover of magazines and newspapers as our first man—er, chimp— in space!
In only a few months human astronauts followed Ham’s lead. Alan Shepard and John Glenn rocketed into space and Ham was forgotten. He was given to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, where he lived for 17 years, alone. He was trained as an astronaut and didn’t get along with jungle animals. His keepers noticed that he often lay on his back and punched in imaginary button sequences, as if he were still flying the capsule. The old chimponaut became lonely and depressed.
Ham was sent to a special “show animal” camp where he could reconnect with his wild brothers and sisters. He was taken to Andrews Air Force Base for the trip. As he was walked across the concrete something wonderful happened. He passed between two lines of Air National Guard pilots, saluting Ham. Ham the brave Chimponaut finally got his honor parade.
Ham lived 3 happy years at the camp and died peacefully in 1983. You can see a plaque for Ham at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico. It says:
He proved that mankind could live and work in space.
Adkins new book is about the first drive in an automobile. The wife of the inventor took her kids to see their grandparents.
ML 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Chimponaut: A Hero Forgotten and Remembered." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/chimponaut:-a-hero-forgotten-and-remembered.
The real Dracula didn’t drink blood or sleep in a coffin. He was not a count but an honorable, well-educated warlord. And much, much scarier than the movie Dracula.
As a Knight of the Dragon Society his father, Vlad II, was called Dracul (“dragon”) . When Vlad III was born in 1431, he was called “little dragon,” Dracula. He was always loyal to his family, friends and to his people, but he was betrayed over and over, beginning with his father. Dracul gave Vlad and his brother Radu to the Turks as hostages—then attacked the Turks!
Wallachia (now part of Romania) was harried in the south by Turkish Moslems. In the north, Hungarian warlords schemed to take over. When the Turks killed his father, Dracula escaped to defend his country and his people.
His methods were rough. He punished offenses large and small by impaling. A long sharpened stake was pushed into the offender’s bottom, then raised upright. Death might come in an hour or in two days. He raised a forest of stakes with impaled offenders in a valley near his capital, Tirgoviste.
Messengers came from the Turks to demand tribute money. Dracula asked why they didn’t take off their turbans as a sign of respect. They said they never took off their turbans. Dracula made certain they didn’t. He had the turbans nailed onto the messengers’ skulls.
An enormous Turkish army attacked from the south. Dracula retreated wisely, seizing and impaling hundreds of the invaders’ stragglers. He made a fierce night attack on the sultan’s camp, killing thousands of Turks before he was beaten back. But when the Turks approached Tirgoviste they rode through a valley lined with 20,000 impaled corpses. The most recent victims were Turkish soldiers. The Turks were so scared that they turned back to home.
Dracula ruled for only seven years. His brother, Radu the Handsome had converted to Islam and swept into Wallachia with the Turks. Another betrayal. Dracula was defeated.
Was Dracula a fiend or a warrior sternly protecting his people from the invading Turks? We just don’t know. We can’t believe the grisly tales his enemies told about him. Best historical guess: Wallachians both loved and feared him. You can see that in an historic tale. Vlad Dracula placed a fabulous goblet at a fountain in Tirgoviste. Any citizen could drink from the golden vessel. It was never stolen. They were too afraid.
Jan Adkin's DK Biography: Thomas Edison tells the story of the famous inventor, from his childhood as an "addled" student, to his reign as the "Wizard of Menlo Park," where he developed the electric light bulb, the phonograph, and many other inventions still in use today. For more information on the book, click here.
Gigantic earthquakes rocked the Midwestern United States between December 16, 1811, and February 7, 1812. A fault in our continent’s stone base runs beneath the Mississippi River near what is now New Madrid, Missouri. Unequal pressures built up on both sides of this fault and the sides slipped to ease the pressure. Whammo—the first of 3 earthquakes from these slips was felt as far away as New York City, Washington, DC, and Charleston, South Carolina.
There were no scientific instruments to measure the New Madrid Quakes in 1812 so geologists have sifted through widespread accounts from old journals and newspapers for data. Putting the accounts together on a map, we know the quakes were felt over an area of 1,930,000 square miles. They earthquakes began with a pair of terrific shocks at 2:15 and 7:15 local time on the morning of December 16, 1811, both measuring 7.2 - 8.1 on the Richter scale. They were followed by a 7.0 - 7.8 quake on January 23, 1812, and a 7.4 - 8.0 event on February 7, 1912.
The quakes were violent, earth-shifting events. There have been even more powerful earthquakes in Alaska and Hawaii, both vulnerable to deep geological pressures, but the New Madrid quakes are the largest to ever occur in the original forty-eight states. Yet little damage or loss of life was reported. The region was then part of Louisiana Territory, sparsely inhabited with small villages and only a few multi-story masonry buildings. We can’t know how many log cabins or small home chimneys were thrown down, or how many Native Americans were affected.
Coincidentally, the first steam paddle-wheeler on the Mississippi, the New Orleans, invented by Robert Fulton, was making its first trip south during the quakes. Land heaves caused massive waves to travel up and down the river. When the little southbound New Orleans met one of these waves it seemed that the great Mississippi was running backward. Some land rose, riverbanks crumbled, some land subsided and formed new lakes. The river’s course was so changed that maps were useless, and the steamboat did a remarkable job of “feeling its way” through the new channels to dock at New Orleans on January 10, 1812.
We’ve come to expect earthquake and volcanic activity around the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” and other hot-spots of geologic shift, but the New Madrid Quake was the product of an unexpected fault in earth’s crust we now call the New Madrid Seismic Zone. And, yes, there is the possibility of similar earthquakes from this zone in the future. The Earth that seems so solid is secretly restless.
Jan Adkins is not only a writer, but also a wonderful illustrator. His personal website is under construction at the moment, but if you would like to find out more about him and see a list of his very well known books, click here.
Adkins is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Earthquakes on the Mississippi?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/earthquakes-on-the-mississippi.
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