THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

33 posts categorized "Science"

19 January 2018

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

Add comment

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.

04 December 2017

Recording of the week: Britain's first supercomputer

Add comment

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

Add comment

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.

06 November 2017

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

Add comment

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

Grapple

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.

09 October 2017

Recording of the week: computer programming and motherhood in the 1960s

Add comment

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

Like many women in the 1960s, Stephanie Shirley left her job in the computer industry after becoming a mother. At the time, women were expected to cut short their professional careers and stay at home to raise the family, but this was not quite what Stephanie Shirley had in mind. In 1963 she started a company named Freelance Programmers, to allow women who had left the computer industry when they had children to continue working as programmers from home. In time, Stephanie Shirley's company grew to a major business employing thousands of people. However, at the start, with sexism rife, Stephanie Shirley had to go to rather unusual lengths to create a professional image, not least calling herself "Steve", as she recalls in this interview from An Oral History of British Science.

Stephanie Shirley_Programming at home (BL ref C1379/28)

Website-647013_1920

This clip is part of Voices of Science, an online resource which uses oral history interviews with prominent British scientists and engineers to tell the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century.

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

Tom Lean will speak about the related An Oral History of Electricity Supply Industry project at ‘The Life Electric’, a British Library event on Thursday 19 October. Book your tickets here https://www.bl.uk/events/the-life-electric-oral-histories-from-the-uk-electricity-supply-industry

24 July 2017

Recording of the week: ‘The BBC are coming on Friday, can we show them a prototype?’

Add comment

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

To anyone who grew up in the 1980s the Acorn BBC Microcomputer was the computer they used at school, a machine that gave countless Britons their first experience of computing and sold over 1.5 million units. Yet this iconic piece of computer hardware came about almost accidentally. With the world on the verge of a computer revolution in the early 1980s, the BBC were desperately searching the British electronic industry for a computer to accompany a new educational television series about computing. To a small company in Cambridge called Acorn Computers, having the BBC adopt their new computer as the BBC Computer was a deal that could transform the company into a major player. However, as Acorn designer Steve Furber recalls, there was one problem: they didn't actually have a new computer yet, and they had just a week to develop one...

Designing the Acorn BBC Microcomputer (C1379/078)

Mother-board-581597_1920

This clip is part of Voices of Science, an online resource which uses oral history interviews with prominent British scientists and engineers to tell the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century.

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

23 June 2017

Women in the Electricity Supply Industry

Add comment

23rd June is International Women in Engineering Day. To mark this we look at the role of women in the electricity supply industry, recently documented by National Life Stories in the project An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK.

In the 1920s and 1930s  the electricity supply industry was thought to offer opportunities for women engineers that were absent in other sectors and some of Britain’s pioneering women engineers including Caroline Haslett, Margaret Partridge and Beatrice Shilling worked in the sector. 

Despite this optimism the electricity supply industry documented in An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK was one that employed few women engineers, even after the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.  Mike Kay, who started his apprenticeship at NORWEB, the regional electricity supplier to north west England in 1978, observed:

Mike Kay on the lack of women engineers in 1970s Britain

Being the first to appoint a woman engineer was something senior managers remembered with pride.  Glyn England recalled doing so during his time at SWEB, the regional supplier for the south west:

Glyn England on the appointment of a woman engineer as a chief officer

So what was it like for these women engineers entering a largely male working environment?  Alison Simpson studied electrical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, secured work experience in a power station and participated in the Scottish Engineering Training Scheme before joining the South of Scotland Electricity Board in 1979 as a trainee in commercial engineering, which involved working with domestic and commercial customers to design and install electrical systems. The lack of women’s toilets at the company’s engineering training facility was an early sign of the discrimination she later faced.

Alison Simpson on sexual discrimination in the workplace

Eventually Alison managed to secure the job as a distribution engineer that she had sought at the outset. This involved working on the high-voltage distribution network and gave her access to a wide range of training courses. These including training in climbing poles and transmission towers that allowed her to appreciate the work of the line staff who kept the system running.

Alison Simpson on climbing electricity poles

Changes to the industry from the later 1980s, especially privatisation and the development of renewable energy sources, challenged its structures, leading to new opportunities for women with a range of expertise.  Lawyer Fiona Woolf developed an understanding of how power systems operated as a legal advisor to the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. This led to an appointment working for National Grid. She and her team wrote hundreds of agreements designed to ensure that a privatised industry really would keep the lights on, learning how to combine market rules with the laws of physics. (Listen to Fiona Woolf's interview on BL Sounds).

Fiona_Woolf_(cropped)Fiona Woolf (2014). Courtesy of  the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

More recently renewable energy companies have provided new opportunities for women, including in leadership positions. Juliet Davenport studied physics and environmental economics before working on energy policy. She worked as commercial director of the UK subsidiary of German energy company Unit(e) and was part of a management buy-out of the firm that later became Good Energy, of which she is currently chief executive. In her interview she suggests that her background in physics was important in establishing her credibility in an industry where some of the existing operators were struggling to adjust to the new ways of doing things that renewable energy represents.

Juliet Davenport on establishing her credibility in the renewable energy industry

Dr Sally Horrocks, Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Leicester, and Senior Academic Advisor to the National Life Stories's project, An Oral History of British Science.

05 April 2017

Politics, jump jets and the world's first hovercraft

Add comment

It has been sixty years since the British aircraft industry was devastated by defence minister Duncan Sandys' White Paper on Defence of 1957, which cancelled almost all new aeroplane projects in favour of guided rockets and forced the demise of many famous companies.

The late 1940s and 1950s was a time of daring new aircraft design concepts, as aeronautical engineers began to explore the potential of the newly developed jet engine. Britain was at the forefront of this experimental age of aircraft design, but much of the effort was directed at military aircraft. The same jet engine designs that whisked tourists in speedy luxury on the De Havilland Comet, the world's first jet airliner, would also power supersonic fighters and mighty nuclear bombers to deter the Soviet Union.

021I-C1379X0035XX-0006A1

SR177 single seat fighter – a development of SR53 in 1958

The problem was that this innovation race was expensive and Britain was broke after the Second World War. There was also a belief that the new guided rockets that were beginning to appear, would soon make piloted military aircraft obsolete, and be a lot cheaper too. Sandys' White Paper abruptly cancelled almost all the new military aircraft projects under development, and forced the aircraft companies to merge with each other.

The effects of the Sandys cuts loom large in the memories of aircraft designers interviewed for An Oral History of British Science, a time of redundancies, confusion, sadness and cancellations. “To us it didn’t make sense at all, it was just silly, stupid, and if Duncan Sandys was sitting in front of me now I’d tell him just that,” recalled Saunders-Roe designer Ray Wheeler.

At the time Saunders-Roe were working on a radical new fighter powered by both a jet and a rocket engine, but as Ray recalls in this interview clip Sandys' White Paper brought an end to the project.

Ray Wheeler on rocket powered fighters

Although the British aircraft industry probably never recovered, the Sandys defence review had a number of unforeseen consequences. Saunders-Roe, for example, turned their attention to building the world's first hovercraft, which took flight in 1959.

021I-C1379X0035XX-0002A1The 1959 Saunders-Roe SRN1, the first hovercraft

Meanwhile at Hawker's factory in Kingston a young designer named Ralph Hooper found himself at a loose end after the cancellation the project he was working on. As Ralph recounts in this video, “in the middle of 1957 I was in the project office really looking for something to do after the expected cancellation of the 1121.”

What he found to do was to sketch out the first design for an incredible new aeroplane that wouldn't need runways – the P.1127, better known today as the Harrier jump jet, one of the few projects to escape the aftermath of the Sandys cuts.

021I-C1379X0027XX-0004A1

Ralph Hooper after his flight in the Harrier c.1972 © BAE SYSTEMS

Blog by Dr Thomas Lean (@reggitsti), Oral History of British Science project interviewer.

Over 1000 hours of unedited interviews from An Oral History of British Science are available in full on BL Sounds, while the Voices of Science web resource offers curated access to audio and video highlights from the interviews organised by theme, discipline and interviewee.

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