Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Women in computing

I recommend listening to "the I.T. Girls" (a cute title which rather sums up the attitude towards female programmers in the 1950s and 1960s) while it is still available on iPlayer. Martha Lane Fox, herself a pioneer IT entrepreneur and one of the few successes of the first boom based on the World Wide Web, moderated a programme about the first UK women programmers. There was a brief introduction touching on Ada, Countess Lovelace - so brief that it fudged some of the details, and, considering that Ada's place as the world's first programmer is pretty well known by now, could have been left out. Afterwards, the programme got into its stride.

She introduced Mary Coombs, who as Mary Blood was recruited when the original small LEO programming team expanded. LEO was the world's first computer designed for commercial work when it went live in 1951. As one of the few computers of any kind working in the country at the time, outside customers were interested in buying time and expertise, which the hard-nosed Lyons management, wanting to see the new machine pay for itself, were ready to sell. More programmers were needed to extend the bread-and-butter (or rather bread, tea and cakes) work of LEO and Mary Blood was one of the first half-dozen. (For more about the rise and fall of Leo Computers, pick up the very readable "A computer called LEO" by Georgina Ferry or David Caminer's recollections here.)

There were also reminiscences from Dorothy Cooper of BOAC (I cannot find any WWW links presumably because she had worked on a computer system whose records have been expunged for commercial or other reasons); Ann Moffatt who started programming at Kodak and went on to manage the automation of the Australian stock exchange and now appears to be happily retired in Queensland; and, of course, Steve Shirley (a 2002 pdf file here).

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