Sound and vision blog

54 posts categorized "Science"

22 June 2018

Women, Engineering and British Politics

June 23rd is International Women in Engineering Day 2018. To mark this and the 100th anniversary of (partial) women’s suffrage in the UK I decided to see what the British Library oral history collections could tell us about women whose careers involved both engineering and parliamentary politics. Neither of these areas was part of systematic oral history fieldwork until the 21st century, when An Oral History of British Science (2009) and The History of Parliament’s Oral History Project (2011) started to gather interviews.

Both projects began by targeting older interviewees and so have not yet captured the increase in participation of women in both fields since the 1970s. The History of Parliament collection concentrates on those who have left office, excluding current MPs such as Margaret Beckett (Labour, Lincoln 1974-79, South Derby 1983 – present), who worked as a metallurgist before moving into politics. She does appear in the recollections of others, including Kenneth Carlisle, interviewed in 2015 by John Barry. Carlisle recalls winning Lincoln for the Conservatives from Beckett in the 1979 general election.

In her interview Emma Nicholson, (Conservative then Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon, 1987-97,) suggests some of the difficulties of combining political ambitions with a technical career. She explains to Emme Ledgerwood why it was only after she stopped working as a computer programmer and systems analyst that she was able to start fulfilling her early political ambitions.

Emma Nicholson on early political ambition (C1503/62/02}

Nicholson joined the industry in 1962, and like other women programmers of her generation benefitted from its willingness to consider entrants from a range of educational backgrounds, in her case one in music.

Emma Nicholson (2)     Emma Nicholson   

Here she describes how she came to take the ‘entrance test’ for International Computers Ltd (ICL).

Emma Nicholson on ICL 'entrance  test' (C1503/62/01)

Once she had completed her training her gender proved decisive in selection for an assignment in Zambia involving setting up key IT infrastructure in the run up to independence in 1964.

Emma Nicholson on setting up Zambian IT infrastructure 1/2 (C1503/62/02)

Emma Nicholson on setting up Zambian IT infrastructure 2/2 (C1503/62/02)

After her election she found herself bombarded by requests from former colleagues eager for her to intervene on proposed legislation concerning software copyright.

Emma Nicholson on copyright legislation (C1503/62/02)

Nicholson now sits in the House of Lords, a chamber that only admitted women in 1958. Here her interests focus on human rights, education, international development and trade.

Perhaps the most vociferous voice for women in engineering to sit in the Lords was Beryl Platt, Baroness Platt of Writtle.

A wartime engineering graduate she joined Hawker Aircraft in 1943 and worked as an aeronautical engineer until her marriage in 1949. Her route into politics was at a local level and she served on Essex County Council for many years. Created a life peer in 1981, she became chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1983, an appointment recalled in her interview by her predecessor Betty Lockwood, interviewed by Margaret Faull in 2014 (C1727/01).

In this role she did much to champion opportunities for women in engineering. This included collaborating with the Engineering Council to launch 1984 as Women into Science and Engineering year and acting as a mentor for a new generation of women engineers, including Joanna Kennedy, interviewed in 2017 by Tom Lean (C1379/126).

Joanna Kennedy on Beryl Platt (C1379/126/04)

A more recent addition to the House of Lords is Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, created a life peer in 2015. Interviewed by An Oral History of British Science in 2011, when she was vice-chancellor of Aston University, she described herself as ‘not a very political animal’. ) (track 2 31:14, transcript p. 60) Perhaps unsurprisingly she sits on the cross benches from where her contributions have been primarily on issues relating to technology, the environment and higher education.

Here I have concentrated on the relatively few women who made the transition from engineering to parliamentary politics, but a broader definition of engagement with the political sphere and the processes of government would have allowed me to include many more women who have provided advice to government, worked in government research establishments and been involved in campaigning in different ways. As the Oral History collections at the British Library continue to expand we can expect significant new insights into how women have combined engineering and politics to emerge.

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.

21 June 2018

“And we saw the thing had done a computation” - The modern computer turns 70

It's been 70 years since the first successful run of the Manchester Baby, arguably the worlds first modern computer. Built in a dreary laboratory at Manchester University, to designs by electronic engineers Freddy Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, the Baby was built primarily to test the world's first computer memory. At its heart was a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT), the same component used in an old style television set to show a picture, but used in the Baby to store data and programs. Unlike any computing machine before it, Baby could be used for different purposes by simply changing the electronic instructions of its program, making it the first machine to share the basic architecture used most computers since.

In 2009-2010, Geoff Tootill, the last survivor of the original Baby team, was interviewed for An Oral History of British Science, and recounted the construction and first run of the machine in 1948:

Geoff Tootill: Building the Manchester Baby (C1379/02)

GCTca1950-will-be-M0002 croppedGeoff Tootill, circa 1950

For all its electronic complexity, logically Baby was a basic machine. Its circuitry could only do subtraction and its memory held a paltry 1 kilobit of data, about 1/32,000,000th of the memory of the computer I'm writing this on. However, “Baby demonstrated the fact that you could now make a programmable computer,” as Professor Dai Edwards, who joined the computing group a few months after Baby's first run, explains in this video.

This blog is by Tom Lean, National Life Stories Project Interviewer. Tom interviewed Geoff Tootill for An Oral History of British Science (reference C1379/02) in 2010.

03 April 2018

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 6: Science and Religion

“As soon as you say that you’re working on a project on Science and Religion everyone listening to that will have certain assumptions of what that could mean… you’re probably not thinking about something as unconventional or as imaginative as these examples seem to suggest”

Episode 6 of National Life Stories podcast features Paul Merchant talking to Charlie Morgan about his work on the project Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum. The oral histories conducted by Paul were part of a much larger project run out of Newman University, York University and the University of Kent and led by Dr Fern Elsdon Baker and Professor Bernard Lightman. You find out more information on their website.

Episode 6 image

All the interviews conducted by Paul are available on British Library Sounds. Clips in the episode are taken from the following interviews:

If you’d like to learn more check out our collection guide on Oral histories of religion and belief.

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 6: Science and Religion

14 March 2018

Memories of Stephen Hawking in An Oral History of British Science

Stephen HawkingStephen Hawking, Unknown Date, Source: NASA

A number of interviews recorded for An Oral History of British Science at the British Library speak of Stephen Hawking in their interviews. Tim Palmer was in the audience for his paper on the emission of particles by black holes at the first ‘Oxford Quantum Gravity Conference’ in 1974 [Track one 1:36:14-1:42:55]. Others remember reading his popular science books. In Sir Harry Bhadeshia’s case, A Brief History of Time (in spite of its famous last sentence) inspired thoughts that led to atheism:

Harry Bhadeshia on A Brief History of Time 1988 (C1379/100)

The most charming memories of Hawking are contained in Nicholas Humphery’s interview, part of a wonderful description of Humphrey’s childhood home in Mill Hill. A teenage Hawking is beautifully recalled in the roles of Scottish dancing instructor and drill sergeant:

Nicholas Humphrey remembers a teenage Stephen Hawking (C1672/21)

This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, the British Library. Paul interviewed Tim Palmer, Harry Bhadeshia and Nicholas Humphrey for An Oral History of British Science. The complete interviews can be listened to on BL Sounds.

19 January 2018

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

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

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

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

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.

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