Female Role Models & The Early Days Of Computing

Everyone remembers the first computer they ever used. And Dr. Joyce Wheeler is no exception. But in her case the situation was a bit different. The first computer she used was one of the first computers anyone used. The machine was Edsac, the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, (pictured) that ran for the first time in 1949 and was built to serve scientists at the University of Cambridge.

Joyce Wheeler was one of those scientists who, at the time, was working on her PhD under the supervision of renowned astronomer Fred Hoyle.

"My work was about the reactions inside stars," she said. "I was particularly interested in how long main sequence stars stay on their main sequence. "I wanted to know how long a star took to fade out," she explained.

The inner workings of the nuclear furnace that keep stars shining is an understandably knotty problem to solve. And, she said, the math’s describing that energetic process were formidable. "For stars, there's a rather nasty set of differential equations that describe their behaviour and composition," she added.

Completing those calculations manually was futile. "It was not possible to be really accurate doing it by hand," she said. "The errors just build up too much."

Enter Edsac, a machine created by Prof Maurice Wilkes to do exactly the kind of calculations Ms. Wheeler (nee Blackler) needed done to complete her advanced degree.

Thinking Time

First though, she had to learn to write the programs that would carry out the calculations.

Dr Wheeler started her PhD work at Cambridge in 1954 knowing about Edsac thanks to an earlier visit during which the machine had been shown off to her and others.

Keen to get on with her research she sat down with the slim booklet that described how to program it and, by working through the exercises in that pioneering programming manual, learned to code.

The little book was called WWG after its three authors Maurice Wilkes, David Wheeler and Stanley Gill.

It was through learning programming that Ms. Blackler got talking to David Wheeler because one of her programs helped to ensure Edsac was working well. They got to know each other, fell in love and married in 1957.

Now, more than 62 years on she is very matter of fact about that time, even though programmers, and especially women programmers, were rare.

Perhaps because of that novel situation, a new discipline and a pioneering machine, the atmosphere at Cambridge in the computer lab was not overwhelmingly masculine. "You could be regarded as a bit of an object, and occasionally it was a bit uncomfortable," she said, "But it was not quite a boys' brigade then in the way that it became later on."

It was an exciting time, she said, because of what the machine could do for her and her work. She took to programming quickly, she said, her strength with math’s helping her quickly master the syntax into which she had to translate those "nasty equations".

"But it was like math’s," she said, "it was one of those things that you knew you should not do for too long.

BBC

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