Sound and vision blog

134 posts categorized "Oral history"

19 January 2018

Mary Lee Berners-Lee: the joy of programming and equal pay

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This blog is by Tom Lean, National Life Stories Project Interviewer. Tom interviewed Mary Lee Berners-Lee and her husband Conway for An Oral History of British Science (reference C1379/23) in 2010-2011.

Mary Lee Berners-Lee, originally Mary Lee Woods, is probably best known as the mother of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, but she had a considerable career in science and technology in her own right. After studying mathematics at the University of Birmingham, she spent the latter part of the Second World War working at the Telecommunications Research Establish (TRE), the secret centre of Britain’s radar development effort. With the war over she returned to her studies, before leaving Britain for the Mount Stromlo observatory in Australia in 1947, where she worked classifying the spectra of stars. In 1951 she returned to Britain and chanced across an advert for a job at Ferranti in Manchester that would change her life: “I was reading Nature and saw an advertisement one day for – saying, ‘Mathematicians wanted to work on a digital computer.’”

021I-C1379X0023XX-0001A1Mary Lee and Conway Berners-Lee in 1954

Mary Lee spent three days in a reference library learning what a computer was, “the most profitable three days I think I’ve ever had because when I went for the interview for the job I could ask intelligent questions and nobody else they’d interviewed had, so it put up my salary quite a bit!” Subsequently she joined the team working on the Ferranti Mark 1, the world’s first general purpose electronic computer to be commercially available – the first machine built to be sold to customers not just an experimental electronic brain developed by scientists. At Ferranti she discovered not only her future husband, Conway Berners-Lee, but also the joy of programming, as she recounts in this extract from her interview for An Oral History of British Science.

Mary Lee Berners-Lee on the joy of programming

Mary Lee left Ferranti to raise a family, but later worked in various computing related jobs. She was not only a pioneer of computer programming, but also for women in science and technology. Mary  fought against Ferranti’s concerns that it would be improper of women programmers to work on the computer overnight with male engineers, and demanded equal pay for women programmers.

Mary Lee Berners-Lee on equal pay for women programmers

You can read more about Mary Lee and listen to more extracts at Voices of Science; parts of her life story interview are available in the Library Reading Rooms.

22 December 2017

National Life Stories Podcast 4: Christmas Podding

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Cathy Courtney, Project Director on the National Life Stories oral history projects Artists’ Lives and Architects’ Lives, chatted to David Govier for our fourth National Life Stories podcast. The conversation starts with why Cathy got into oral history, and moves on to discuss why oral historians ask about Christmas.

Along the way you will hear extracts from the following interviews:

Neil Hufton interviewed by Cos Michael, Food: From Source to Salespoint, 2006 (C821/195)

George Messenger interviewed by George Ewart Evans, 1956 (T1419W)

Bill Adcocks interviewed by Rachel Cutler, An Oral History of British Athletics, 2010 (C790/48)

Christopher Butler interviewed by Andrea Hertz, History of Parliament Oral History Project, 2016 (C1503/142)

Michael Rothenstein interviewed by Mel Gooding, Artists’ Lives, 1990 (C466/02)

John Watts interviewed by Cos Michael, Food: From Source to Salespoint, 2006 (C821/190)

Nigel Bell interviewed by Paul Merchant, An Oral History of British Science (C1379/91)

Eric Ash interviewed by Tom Lean, An Oral History of British Science (C1379/92)

Cedric Battye interviewed by Jan Sanderson, Unheard Voices: Interviews with Deafened People, 2008 (C1345/12)

Eva Jiricna interviewed by Niamh Dillon, Architects’ Lives, 2015 (C467/127)

National Life Stories Podcast 4 - Christmas

You can find out more about National Life Stories at our website. Search for 'Christmas' at British Library Sounds  to find over 1,350 Christmas memories, songs and broadcasts!

19 December 2017

An Oral History of Oral History - where did it all start for you?

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Charlie Morgan, Archive and Administrative Assistant for National Life Stories explores the Oral History of Oral History collection.

What happens when roles are reversed? When a doctor is the patient, when a chef gets served dinner, when an oral historian is the one who gets asked all the questions? Well that’s exactly what you get (minus the doctor and the chef) in one of our newest online collections, an Oral History of Oral History.

An Oral History of Oral History is a collection of life story interviews with the pioneers and leaders of oral history in the UK. The interviews were mostly conducted by Robert Wilkinson and cover the technological, organisational and methodological changes within the discipline since the 1950s. If you've ever had an interest in oral history but haven't really understood what it is or who the people are who practice it, this is the collection for you.

SoundArchive_22Feb08-000448Rob Perks with Paul Thompson and Jennifer Wingate as they prepare for their interview for an Oral History of Oral History (C1149/09)

Although everyone in the collection is well-established in their field, the benefit of the life story approach is that the interviews include everything from childhood to hobbies and not just career highlights. With that in mind, for this blog I went back to the start and tried to find out where it all began, how each person got involved with oral history in the first place.

For many of the early practitioners, especially those with connections to the History Workshop movement or Ruskin College Oxford, there was a political dimension to oral history. In his interview, Alun Howkins describes how he initially went to Ruskin to study economics but on the advice of Raphael Samuel he switched to history. It was then that he began to interview poachers in Headington Quarry near to his home town Bicester. For Alun the entire goal of History Workshop had been “to give back the history of the poor to the poor” and with that in mind “it seemed perfectly logical that the way to do that was a tape recorder”.

Alun Howkins on switching to history at Ruskin (C1149/10/06)

Alun Howkins on interviewing poachers (C1149/10/07)

While for some there was an explicitly political impetus to oral history, for others it has been driven by much more practical purposes. Cynthia Brown first encountered oral history when she was completing her undergraduate dissertation and was looking for additional information on local funeral directors. She needed evidence, had exhausted the documentary sources and so, “which is so often the case with oral history”, decided an interview was the best way to get it.

Cynthia Brown on interviewing funeral directors (C1149/32/06)

Elizabeth Roberts is another oral historian who came to oral history more by chance than pre-planning, and she was initially very sceptical of the whole thing. After being instructed by John Marshall at the University of Lancaster to conduct some interviews, Elizabeth describes how she was “absolutely appalled” at the idea and “couldn’t think how on earth this was going to be valuable”. Luckily for us she gave it a go anyway.

Elizabeth Roberts on her first interviews (C1149/08/03)

As we’ve seen, many people first got involved with oral history on the recommendation of someone else in the field. For Alun Howkins it was Raphael Samuel, for Elizabeth Roberts it was John Marshall, and for Brian Harrison it was Paul Thompson. According to Brian, Paul and Thea Thompson “went around with their machines and made converts” and in him they definitely found one.

Brian Harrison on meeting Paul and Thea (C1149/24/02)

One great strength of the Oral History of Oral History project is that it covers multiple generations. So not only can we listen to Brian Harrison describe the influence Paul Thompson had on him, but we also get to hear from Paul himself. Paul's interview is especially valuable as it fills in a lot of the gaps. For example, many of the interviewees in this collection talk about conducting interviews long before they had heard of the term 'oral history' but Paul is able to tell us where it came from. We also get to hear a very un-catchy alternative term that was thankfully left behind.

Paul Thompson on the term 'oral history' (C1149/29/02)

These interviews and stories featured here are just a small selection of those in an Oral History of Oral History. There are many others in the collection, plus the original recordings of another pioneer of oral history, George Ewart Evans, but of course there are also many stories of being introduced to oral history that have never even been recorded. So if you’re an oral historian or if you work with oral history why not tweet us at @BL_OralHistory and let us know how you first got involved.

04 December 2017

Recording of the week: Britain's first supercomputer

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

It has been 55 years since the commissioning of Atlas at the University of Manchester in 1962, one of the world's very first supercomputers. Developed largely by the University of Manchester and Ferranti, the enormous machine was probably the second most powerful computer at the time and pioneered a number of innovations in hardware and software. Capable of processing about a million instructions a second and with over 670 kilobytes of memory, Atlas had as much computing power as several smaller machines, albeit far less than the simplest desktop machine today. It was said that when Atlas went offline, Britain lost half its computing power. Yet despite this awesome potential, only three Atlas computers were ever built. As Atlas's lead hardware designer Professor David Edwards recalled for An Oral History Of British Science, it was rather difficult convincing the sceptics that Britain even needed a machine that was so powerful:

We only need one computer for the country_Dai Edwards (C1379/11)

University_of_Manchester_Atlas _January_1963

The Atlas computer at the University of Manchester, 1963 (Iain MacCallum)

Visit the library's Voices of Science web resource to explore 100 life stories about environmental science, British technology and engineering from 1940 to the present.

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

24 November 2017

“And we saw the thing had done a computation” - Geoff Tootill, 1922 – 2017

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Tom Lean, project interviewer for the National Life Stories collection An Oral History of British Science, remembers interviewing Geoff Tootill, electrical engineer and computer designer, who died last month.

  GCTca1950-will-be-M0002 croppedGeoff Tootill, c. 1950

Geoff Tootill was the very last survivor of the team which designed and built the world's first modern computer - the 1948 “Manchester Baby.” In 2009 he was also my very first interviewee for an Oral History of British Science, and over 18 hours of answering my novice questions with patience and dry humour, he influenced the way I've approached interviewing scientists ever since.

I'd never really thought before about just how far back into the past we can reach with oral history interviews. Yet there I was in 2009, talking to somebody about their experiences back in the 1940s. Decades years before I was born, Geoff was an electronics engineer doing secret wartime work on airborne radar at the secret Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Malvern.

I was impressed at Geoff's ability to recall the technical details of his work and the sophistication of the radar systems he and his colleagues developed with the primitive electronics of the day. Yet it wasn't all high pressure secret work - as a member of the TRE's Flying Rockets Concert Party, Geoff also built the electric systems for stage shows, and I realised that scientist's social lives often have an element of the technical about them.

Geoff Tootill - TRE's Flying Rockets concert party (C1379-02)

With the war over, Geoff went to the University of Manchester to help former TRE colleagues Tom Kilburn and Freddy Williams build the world's first stored program computer. The Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine, better known today as the “Manchester Baby,” weighed a ton and was far from small. However, its fundamental architecture is still at work in the computer, tablet or smartphone you're reading this on.

021I-C1379X0002XX-0001M1Geoff Tootill, 2005 (reproduced by permission of the Manchester Evening News and Oldham Advertiser)

I spent hours talking to Geoff about building Baby, and the thing that has stuck with me most is how modestly understated he was about his involvement with this world changing development. It helped me realise that historic moments often only look that way with the benefit of hindsight. In the 1940s Geoff and his colleagues had little idea that computers would change the world, anticipating their major uses would be for weather forecasting and atomic energy calculations. The process of actually building the machine was a long process of iterative technical work before one day in early summer 1948 they, “saw the thing had done a computation.”

Geoff Tootill - building the Manchester Baby (C1379-02)

An Oral History of British Science is a national collection of interviews with over 100 leading UK scientists and engineers, telling the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century as well as the personal stories of each individual. You can find out about interviewees and listen to extracts at Voices of Science and you can listen to full-length interviews at British Library Sounds.

National Life Stories is the UK's leading oral history fieldwork charity, based at the British library.

21 November 2017

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 3: Gay UK

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For our third National Life Stories podcast Charlie Morgan spoke to Steven Dryden, Broadcast Recordings Curator at the British Library and co-curator of the exhibition Gay UK: Love Law and Liberty. Gay UK ran from June-September 2017 and marked 50 years since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and 60 years since the Wolfenden Report. The exhibition was extremely popular and it just so happened that it contained a lot of oral histories!

Gay-liberation-front-manifesto-London-copyright-gay-liberation-frontGay Liberation Front Manifesto, London, 1971 (c) Gay Liberation Front 

In podcast you'll from interviews which discuss organizations like the Homosexual Law Reform Society and the Gay Liberation Front, as well experiences ranging from World War 2 to 1970s nightclubs. You'll also hear Steven's views on how he chose clips for the exhibition and how it felt to edit, or “hack to pieces", those same clips.

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 3: Gay UK

Clips in the episode are taken from the following interviews:

  • John Alcock, C456/003 Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project
  • Tony Dyson, C456/074 Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project
  • Maureen Duffy, C1276/03 Authors’ Lives
  • Mary McIntosh, C1420/11 Sisterhood & After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project
  • Jonathan Blake, C456/104 Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project

If you’d like to learn more check out our collection guide on Oral histories of sexuality, reproductive health and prostitution.

06 November 2017

Recording of the week: watching Britain's nuclear bomb tests

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This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

On 8th November 1957, hundreds of British military and scientific personnel gathered at Christmas Island, a remote speck of land in the Pacific Ocean. They were there for Operation Grapple X, the first successful test of a British hydrogen bomb. At 1.8 megatons, the blast was about a hundred and forty times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and signified Britain's mastery of the secrets of thermonuclear power. Amongst the witnesses to the mushroom cloud rising above Christmas Island was a 35 year old technician named Frank Raynor. As he recalls, in perhaps something of an understatement, it was “quite impressive” to watch:

Frank Raynor_C1379/76


The tests were also witnessed by Laurance Reed, a naval officer on HMS Warrior. He describes a shipboard atmosphere of excitement, anxiety and awe when the first bomb was dropped. 

Laurence Reed_C1503/37

The full interview with Frank Raynor can be found in the Oral History of British Science collection on British Library Sounds.

Follow @BL_OralHistory  and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

16 October 2017

Recording of the week: soul midwives

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This week's selection comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

Friends, Vanessa and Felicity, talk about their work as soul midwives which involves working with people who are dying to ensure that their death is personal and dignified. They describe the different ways that people approach and experience death and how their work has changed the way that they view life and think about their own death. They discuss at length the mysteries that surround death, how other people react to what they do and the gift of insights that they feel are given to them by the people they work with. They also describe the experiences of death that made them want to do this job, they talk about how much they enjoy what they do and say that, contrary to what people might think, it actually involves a lot of joy and laughter.

The Listening Project_soul midwives (excerpt)

Vanessa and Felicity

This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Vanessa and Felicity can be found here.

Follow @CollectingSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.