The Explainer General
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,
Picture this: It’s cold gray October 1918 in France, in the Argonne Forest. World War I has been going on for four hideous, deadly years. You and about 500 of your fellow Americans are smack in the middle of a MASSIVE battle. You’re running out of food and ammo. Shells are EXPLODING all around you and some of them are American! Those guys don’t know where you and your buddies are, trapped in a hillside valley, surrounded by enemy Germans!
How can Major Charles Whittlesey, the commander of this lost battalion, let those other Americans know where his unit is? They’re cut off from the telegraph wires; so what, wave a flag? That’ll just draw more enemy fire! The messengers he’d sent had been shot or captured. How about homing pigeons? In this awful war, more than a 100,000 of them were used to carry battlefield messages. The major had sent all but one of his pigeons only to see them shot out of the sky. Finally, the desperate officer calls for his last one, named Cher Ami, the French words for Dear Friend.
Major Whittlesey scribbles out a message: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4.Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” He rolls the scrap of paper, stuffs it into the tiny silver canister attached to Cher Ami’s leg, and sends him up and away. This pigeon has flown 11 successful missions— will he make it now? He must!
The Germans fire.
Cher Ami falls! He’s hit!
But he beats and flaps his wings, gains altitude, and flies 25 miles. Despite being blinded in one eye and shot in his bloodied breast, Cher Ami delivers the critical message, still attached to his leg, dangling by a bloody tendon. And 194 American soldiers are saved by their brave dear, feathered friend. For his heroic service, Cher Ami was awarded France’s highest medal, le Croix de Guerre (the Cross of War).
In the months after the war ended, on November 11, 1918, ocean liners carried Cher Ami and many thousands of other veterans to America. He continued to be treated, but in the end, his injuries were too serious. Cher Ami died on June 13, 1919.
Back in the USA, Major Charles Whittlesey gave speeches about the war. He said nothing about any sorrow or awful memories, so no one knows just why he jumped off a ship to his death in the sea, late one night in November 1921. But the memory of soldiers’ heroism and of one bird’s stubborn courage will never die.
Cheryl's Latest book is Flags Over America. Click here to find out more about the book or click here to find out more about the author.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Dear Friend." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/dear-friend.
the "Julia Child" of kids' hands-on science
Think you might like to be a helicopter pilot? If so, here’s what the U.S. Flight Aptitude Selection Test for helicopter pilots says: “Helicopter pilots must pass some of the most demanding physical tests of any job in the military. To be accepted for pilot training, applicants must have excellent vision and be in top physical condition. They must have very good eye-hand-foot coordination and have quick reflexes.”
A sense of balance is also extremely important because sometimes instruments alone are not enough to keep a helicopter oriented properly in the air. Pilots may have to make very subtle corrections. So here’s a test for balance. Be forewarned. Not many people can do this, maybe one in twenty.
1. Stand at attention.
2. Make two fists and extend your arms straight down by your sides. Point your index fingers to the ground.
3. Close your eyes.
4. Bend one leg back at the knee so that your lower leg is parallel to the floor and you are standing on one foot. Don’t let your foot droop. You must maintain your knee at a right angle.
5. Keep your eyes closed and hold this position for ninety seconds.
6. Try not to shake.
I learned about this from a Scotsman who told me about this test to qualify for the British Royal Air Force. He couldn't pass it, nor could I. In fact, no one I knew could rise to the helicopter pilot challenge except a Navy pilot in my family. He held the position perfectly for two minutes. Solid like a rock. No problem.
It’s clear that when it comes to certain skills not everyone is equal. Some people are not even close. So very few people are in the running to become helicopter pilots. You're probably not one of them but this may change with training.
Vicki Cobb is a former science teacher with a M.A. in secondary school science. She is also the founder and president of iNK Think Tank, the group that is producing The Nonfiction Minute. Thanks, Vicki!
Check out How Could We Harness a Hurricane?. To find out more about this book and other books that Vicki has written, click here.
Vicki Cobb 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
Cobb, Vicki. "Take the Helicopter Pilot Challenge." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/ Take-the-Helicopter-Pilot-Challenge.
Incoming shell! Whenever ten-year-old Lucy McRae heard that distinctive sound, she froze, allowing the explosive to fly on over her. Then she hurried into the safety of the family’s cave.
It was 1863 and Vicksburg, Mississippi, was being bombarded by Union artillery. It was located strategically on the Mississippi River. All along the waterfront, Confederate cannon prevented Union ships from taking control of the river and using it to invade the South. President Lincoln said that for the North to win the war, those cannons must be silenced. He selected General Ulysses Grant to force Vicksburg to surrender.
Grant’s army sieged the city of 5,000, cutting off food supplies and fresh water. Then he rained shells day and night on the Confederate troops defending Vicksburg and on its terrified civilians. But townspeople had no intention of giving up. Most of their men were off fighting, but those remaining were stalwart: there would be no surrender.
Instead, they dug more than 500 caves into the sides of Vicksburg’s many hills, where they took refuge. Everyone lived side by side, rich and poor, masters and slaves. Cooking tents were set up outside the entrances, and during lulls in shelling, residents hastily prepared whatever food they had. Lucy always stayed outside until the moment shelling started again.
The caves were hot, dark, dank, and crowded, and were home to spiders, scorpions, lizards, mosquitoes, and snakes. “It was living like tree roots,” one woman said. People brought in rugs, bedding, books and favorite artwork to make their surroundings more tolerable. Sometimes there were close calls when a shell hit a cave. Once Lucy was buried under a mound of sliding dirt for several minutes. When her frantic mother pulled her out, she gasped for air, her mouth and nose full of dirt.
Although the town was severely damaged by the shelling, because of the caves only a dozen people died in the forty-seven-day siege. Townspeople wanted to hold out, but daily rations of water and food were almost gone, forcing the city’ surrender on July 4, 1863.
The South’s loss of Vicksburg helped the North win the war. But the bravery of townspeople like Lucy, who held fast in the face of overwhelming odds, was never in dispute.
Howard Pyle painting of terrorized people spotting a rocket shell.
Photo of a cave entrance after the siege., Note the unexploded shells.
If you’d like to know more about the Siege of Vicksburg, Andrea Warren tells the whole story of Lucy and other children caught up in that dramatic event in her award-winning book Under Siege! Three Children at the Civil War Battle for Vicksburg. For more on her books, visit her website at AndreaWarren.com.
Andrea Warren is a member of Authors on Call. Here's a link to her interactive video conference: What Children Experienced in the Civil War: Three Young People at the Siege of Vicksburg. (Note to teachers: you may have to register at CILC to reach this website. It's free and it's a GREAT resource).
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "Living in Caves to Survive the Siege of Vicksburg." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 3 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/Living-in-Caves-to-Survive-the-Siege-of-Vicksburg.
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