Friday, April 26, 2013

Elliott, Dina and Steve

I was reading "'Memo' Functions and Machine Learning" again.  It's an interesting article, appearing in Nature, before an article about mammalian reproduction, and uses balancing a pole on a trolley as an example of artificial intelligence.

In the paper, the trolley is controlled in real-time by two computers: a PDP-7 and an Elliott 4100.  I hadn't heard of the 4100 before but the Elliott and others come from the start of the British computing industry - including others you may never have heard of like LEO and English Electric Computers. You can read more about them in "Early Computer Production at Elliotts" and "Moving Targets - Elliott Automation and the Dawn of the Computer Age in Britain 1947-1976" (review of the book).

One of the pictures in the Elliott computer archives has the caption, "Switching on the Elliott 405 at Norwich City Council in 1957. The woman to the right is Dina Vaughan (later Dina St Johnston), who did the initial programming for the Norwich system." In 1959, she was the first person to start a UK software house.  This being a company that only wrote software - not software that came bundled with hardware.  The first, according to Wikipedia, was Computer Usage Company in 1955.

The best resource on her I could find was in "The Computer Journal" called "An Appreciation of Dina St Johnston (1930–2007)".  It describes how she was writing software in the mid-50s making her a contemporary of people like Michie, Turing, von Neumann and Godel.  It describes what programming was like then:
"She wrote with a Parker 51 fountain pen with permanent black ink and if there ever was a mistake it had to be corrected with a razor blade. Whereas the rest of us tested programs to find the faults, she tested them to demonstrate that they worked."
One of the first commercial jobs for the company was a control system for the first industrial nuclear power plant.  Her company, Vaughan Programming Services, was visited on the 10th anniversary of the British software industry by "Electronic Weekly":
"The staff in a company run by a woman might be expected to contain a high proportion of women, and this expectation is fulfilled", runs the EW report, "but, unexpectedly, a low proportion of the professionals employed have degrees, and there is no great emphasis on strong mathematical background in the mix of skills used."
The industry norms don't seem to have changed very much.  More details can be found on Google Books by searching, "Dina Vaughan" (or St Johnston).

In "Recoding Gender", Dina St Johnston is mentioned along with another female programming pioneer, Dame Stephanie Shirley.  A refugee of World War II, she entered the software industry as a "late pioneer".  She became interested in programming and got into the computer room by sweeping up chads, "I could not believe that I could be payed so much for something I enjoyed so much...early software was was so engrossing."  In 1962 she started "Freelance Programmers", the second software company founded by a woman in the UK.   Her view of the computing industry seems to be one that offered a way to address social and economic problems, "a crusade", a flexible workplace with policies designed to support women with dependents.  Originally designed to help women with children to continue to work, its charter gradually became more broad to include supporting women's careers, then for women with any dependent and in 1975 was expanded, by law, to include men.  The final mission became "people with dependents who couldn't work in the conventional environment".  She says in her biography, the company had always employed some men and at the time of the passing of the equal opportunities law three of the 300 programmers and a third of the 40 systems analysts were male.

A Guardian article, written in 1964, quoted in "Dinosaur and Co", about Shirley and the early IT industry:
"The main qualification is personality...Much of the work is tedious, requiring great attention to detail, and this is where women usually score...Mrs Steve Shirley...has found in computer programming an outlet for her artistic talents in the working out of logical patterns.
Now retired with a young baby, she has found that computer programming, since it needs only a desk, a head and paper and pencil, is a job that can be done from home between feeding the baby and washing the nappies.  She is hoping to interest other retired programmers in joining her work on a freelance basis."
The difficulties in starting a software company in the 1950s and 1960s seem immense.  There was the idea that you couldn't sell software, that it didn't have any value as a product or a service by itself, as customers expected it to be free with the hardware.  Then there is the inequality and sexism.  She called herself "Steve" as no one responded to her business letters when she used "Stephanie".  Banks also required written permission from a man so that a woman could open a bank account.  Furthermore, almost all companies and the public service required or expected women to leave their job when they married or had their first child, so you "retired with a young baby".  One of the few ways women could continue to work was to start their own company.

She mentions her title was for "services to the industry" and as any good programmer does, she defines Dames: "...recursively by saying, a Knight is a male Dame".  She recently released a biography called "Let IT Go" which includes many personal struggles as well as parts that are a more practical, British version of "Lean In".

You can listen to her talk in "The Life Story of a Pioneer: From Hi-tech to Philanthropy" (the subject of about IT and running a software company begins about 12 minutes in, the second half of the talk is dedicated to her philanthropy mostly for autism).  There's also an earlier recorded video of that talk and others on her University of Oxford page.

The early British IT industry wasn't only about commercialising military projects or solving hardware and software problems but it was a way of affecting social change - to allow more people to work more flexibly.