back to article Mary Coombs, first woman commercial programmer, dies at 93

British programmer Mary Coombs, the first woman to program a computer designed for commercial applications, passed away on February 28 at the age of 93. Coombs (née Blood), was born in northwest London on February 4, 1929 to William Blood and Ruth Blood (née Petri). She graduated from Queen Mary University London with a BA …

  1. Tom 7

    I hope there is more than this somewhere

    I read 'A Computer Called Leo' with a dropped jaw - to realise that an old valve machine was used far more intensely than most Windows machines, and many modern ERP systems was mindblowing. Condolences to her family.

    1. Nifty

      Re: I hope there is more than this somewhere

      I also read that book.

      "According to the UK's Science Museum, this was the first routine, real-time office application."

      I like to think of it as an operational research/industrial one. Payroll came later as the article mentions.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: I hope there is more than this somewhere

      Read the linked PDF. Fascinating. And, as the article says, things don't change. They were working with the French firm Bull and she was doing some technical translating of manuals in her own time. When she suggested they pay her for that they outsourced ot to a firm of translators instead.

    3. Martin Gregorie

      Re: I hope there is more than this somewhere

      I also have a copy and knew one of the people who worked on EDSAC, which the LEO was based on. Unfortunately, at the time (1968/69) I'd never heard of EDSAC.

      If you're interested in computing history then, alongside "A computer called LEO", your library needs a copy of "A Brief History of the Future" by John Naughton, which described the history of the Internet. Again, I've met one of the people involved, this time Roger Scantlebury, in 1984 at Logica.

      1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

        Re: I hope there is more than this somewhere

        For those who are interested in history, I have an original copy of the GB Government's 1953 report into computing. It includes such insights as "... a machine has been developed that has run for an entire weekend without servicing." That machine was LEO. :-)

        They also concluded that only about 5 computers would ever be required ... I assume the producers of this report were related to the beancounters who produced of the subsequent Government report concluding that "there is no economic future for satellite technology" at the height of the British space launch programme? :-(

    4. anothercynic Silver badge

      Re: I hope there is more than this somewhere

      Brilliant book, isn't it? :-)

  2. Hull
    Thumb Up

    First time I heard of her -- thanks!

    I'll try to work her story into conversation with my daughter.

    1. Warm Braw

      Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

      And don't forget to mention Dame Vera Stephanie "Steve" Shirley and Dina St Johnston, too, if you haven't already...

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

        Interesting that many of the first computer programmers/operators were women and this continued into the 60s mainframes.

        Assuming that this was because it was considered closer to telephone switchboard operator, in the early days, and then just 'typing' once consoles appeared. While the soldering wires was obviously 'proper' electrical engineering and therefore man's work.

        1. Sam Adams the Dog

          Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

          Also, many of the early programmers were trained in the humanities, as Mary Coombs was, rather than in the STEM fields.

          1. Tom 7

            Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

            That was because women were not encouraged to study sciences! Indeed a friend of mine at the local Girls Grammar School nearly started WW3 before she was allowed to study A'Level sciences at the school. This would be 1974! When went to Uni 3 years later there were only 3 women on my Electrical And Electronic Eng course out of over 60 and they did not receive a warm welcome from a large part of the intake. It must have been hell for them as their is nothing worse than obsessive sexist autistic engineering students on their case, something I only found out after graduation as I tended to skip most classes.

            1. martinusher Silver badge

              Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

              >to study A'Level sciences at the school. This would be 1974

              There are exceptions to the rule. My wife is the eldest of a family of three girls who all graduated in Physics in the early to mid 70s from British universities. They went on to get postgraduate degrees in the subject. Their parents were normal, not heavy duty scientists, feminists or whatever, so I'd guess their subject choice was a combination of inherent aptitude and their parents forgetting to drum into them stuff like "Girls Don't Do Math". (Which is a lie, anyway.)

              They're now retired and the missus can can pass muster as a generic older lady. Incidentally, she hates computers with a passion despite being around them for 40-50 years.

              1. jake Silver badge

                Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

                "Incidentally, she hates computers with a passion despite being around them for 40-50 years."

                Doesn't surprise me in the least. There are many of us posting here on ElReg who resemble that remark (minus being your wife, of course).

        2. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

          This happened at NASA because "computers" were human beings for the first half of the 20th century and the electronic variety was about to put many of them out of work.

          The skullduggery, assumptions, biases and sneakery of management was more than matched by a bunch of highly intelligent and undervalued women determined not to become unemployed

          It turned out they were able to solve problems with the newly installed systems (out of hours, without authorisation and without knowledge of the management) that even IBM's installation techs couldn't figure out (a good chunk of which was down to miswiring)

          1. Stoneshop

            Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

            The movie "Hidden Figures" shows a fair (not perfect of course, it's still a Hollywood product) account of the role of the 'calculators', and how they managed to adjust to the introduction of computers.

            John Glenn requested that one of them, Katherine Johnson, go over the calculations for his flight before he was confident enough to plonk his butt on top of some 100 tons of kerosene and LOX and have it fling him into earth orbit with sufficient chance to get back down. In one piece.

        3. Warm Braw

          Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

          Even in the early 80s: I was supposed to be going to work for ICL (they cancelled all recruitment before I got there...) but at the time they boasted of their (relatively) progressive attitude to maternity leave and allowed women to work from home (albeit doing the tedious stuff like finding and fixing bugs). My gut feeling is that there were proportionately more women working in IT in those days and in more senior positions.

          And, actually, a lot of electrical assembly was done by women. Core memory arrays were frequently made by women owing to the dexterity and patience (perceived to be) required to thread the fine wires. And, of course, they got paid less.

          It seems that gender roles get further reinforced when industries go "mainstream".

      2. Andy Landy

        Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

        And don't forget to mention Dame Vera Stephanie "Steve" Shirley and Dina St Johnston, too, if you haven't already...

        Margaret Hamilton too. I'm ashamed to say I was ignorant of her until quite recently. Amongst other things, she gave us the term "software engineer"...

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

          This isn't intended to denigrate Margaret Hamilton in any way, shape or form - but one of the reasons you know about her and not many of the other brilliant female engineers/programmers at NASA - such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan or Mary Jackson (all crucial programmers in various arenas) is because she's white

          NASA's facilities - Johnson in particular - were in the heart of segregationist country in the 60s and it showed. Several NASA administrators fought tooth and nail to keep women out and even harder to keep black women out

          This atittude was stll showing at the end of the 1960s despite presidential equality orders and the appointment of James Webb with a mandate to desegregate the agency (This is WHY the telescope is named after him) - the work and effort of black employees was played down or flat out "disappeared" right into the 1970s

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

            But it is denigration, and you know it. She got the positions she got in the late '50s and early '60s DESPITE being female in a world of men. Which means that she worked her ass off. Bringing race into the issue makes it sound like she merely lucked into the jobs simply because she was white, which is total and complete bullshit, and indeed a form of racism in and of itself.

            Before you poo-poo this, THINK about it ... The only reason for your derogatory comment is because of her skin colo(u)r. Isn't that the very definition of racism?

            I don't remember MLK saying "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will judge white people by the color of their skin, instead of the content of their character." ... do you?

      3. anothercynic Silver badge

        Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

        And Steve is active on Twitter too... she's a very switched-on lady!

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

      I heard of her. My A Level Computer Studies teacher, back in 1978/79 was a woman, a Systems Analyst on secondment, She had some great stories, including about women in computing, so it never feels odd to me to meet women in tech fields as it does for some others of my generation. I guess what you learn and the examples you see in your formative years really does have an effect on your outlook throughout your life.

      1. seldom

        Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

        We also had a teacher in '78-'79 who had a degree in computing. She taught maths because in state schools in the East Midlands there was no such thing as computer studies. She was willing to teach us about computing after school but the headmaster believed that "Computers are just a fad, nothing will come of them.", so he wouldn't let us use a classroom after hours. He was such a unremarkable bureaucrat that I can't even remember his name. The school was Wulfric Comprehensive in Burton upon Trent.

        1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

          Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

          TBH a "degree in computing" at that time was a rarity - most were maths or electrical engineering based with computing as part of the degree. Even in the 80's I was the only employee in the FE college IT teching department with a qualification in computer science, nearly all the specialist lecturers were maths or electronics trained and most were time-served in computing environments.

    3. katrinab Silver badge

      Re: First time I heard of her -- thanks!

      There are plenty of women involved in the early history of computers.

      On the software side of things, actually there's probably more women than men.

  3. Skiron

    All punch cards at first.

    I'll have a beer for the Lady - and well done Lyons for recruiting on ability and not the boys club.


    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: All punch cards at first.

      Paper tape at first.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Paper tape at first.

        I think you'll find punch cards were used to control looms a century or so before the telegraph and paper tape were invented.

        1. Skiron
        2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: Paper tape at first.

          I know about Jacquard looms; I grew up in a textile area and my holiday jobs were when I was young were in milla.

          Jacquards are more limited in function than you may think. None that I saw in the mills 60 years or so ago could do no more than control healds so although they were capable of making complex patterns in the warp they were no use if there was more than one weft. In the woollen mills of the West Riding Jacquard mechanisms were limited to what were termed "Woven lists", lettering woven into the edges of the cloth saying things such as "SUPERFINE WORSTED". The main control mechanism on looms such as the Dobcross used a chain rather like a very heavy bicycle chain with disks on the cross-pieces of the links. The disks acted as cams and although they could only control a limited number of sets of healds - AFAICR the biggest gears we had used about 12, they could control the selection of the shuttle boxes, i.e. the weft.

          None of this is relevant to Mary Coombs's story. If you read the PDF linked in the article you'll find that although punched cards were used for storing data - Lyons already used them already with tabulators - the programs were entered on paper tape.

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: Paper tape at first.

            I learned card weaving (kind of a cross between simple backstrap weaving and Jacquard ... look it up) back in the 1960s in Palo Alto. It was a bit of a fad at the time, you can see hippys wearing belts and headbands made this way in photos of the era. I made the guitar strap that I still use today in roughly 1970.

            Creating new patterns (including lettering in a variety of fonts) is without a doubt simple programming ... Did it help shape my mind for the computer revolution that was to come? Probably. Hard to say for sure ... but I made sure to teach my daughter this deceptively simple technique.

            Give it a whirl. It's cheap (you can make all the hardware at home, even if you're not particularly handy), relaxing and a useful skill in that you can make custom flat webbing for almost any need.

            1. Gene Cash Silver badge

              Re: Paper tape at first.

              I remember having a toy loom in the mid '70s as a kid. It had a frame with a lot of wool threads, and another swinging frame with a lot of wool threads you pushed back and forth as you passed a shuttle with some more wool left and right.

              As you can see, I got the terminology down pat. Seriously though, it was a lot of fun, even though you didn't end up with anything useful at the end.

              I don't remember much about it, but I Googled "toy loom" and what I had was far more complex and made of lots of heavy plastic.

              1. Alan Brown Silver badge

                Re: Paper tape at first.

                1970s-era home knitting machines had an updated version of punch cards too.

                They were a lot of fun to setup patterns on

        3. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: Paper tape at first.


          Paper tape was used to record/reply communications on that new-fangled telegraph (and later, the Baudot teletype)

    2. Paul Kinsler

      Re: I'll have a beer for the Lady -

      Or rather a cup of tea and some cake, surely. Lyon's wasn't a brewery :-)

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Rest in peace, pioneer!

    She had such a gentle and lovely smile in that image on the video; a lady you could really see sitting down with a coffee or tea to discuss the weather and the history of computing... both just casual, matter of fact, everyday, ordinary topics to Reg Readers. :)

  5. TeeCee Gold badge


    My guess would be vibrations from the lift passing playing merry hell with the pulses in the delay line memory?


    1. NorthIowan

      Re: Interference.

      Most likely.

      But valves can be sensitive to vibrations to. It would depend on how they were biased. If the logic was running in a too linear of a region they might perturbed by vibrations. And the drivers and receivers for the delay lines might well have had some linear amps.

    2. jake Silver badge

      Re: Interference.

      Starting and stopping the lift played merry hell with harmonics in the mains.

      Picture a data center in the basement of a tall building in San Francisco's financial district. Card punch up against a wall, near the ancient Otis heavy goods lift. Every now and again, at seemingly random times, the punch generated errors for a couple characters. Nobody could figure out why, not even IBM's field circus dudes.

      Until IBM was traipsing in and out one fine weekend, upgrading who knows what hardware, as only IBM could. Someone (ahem) noticed that the gibberish was being generated about ten seconds before the elevator doors opened.

      Turned out that the motor for the lift was drawing so much current when it first started that it was inducing errors in the punch on the other side of the wall. Nobody put two and two together prior to this because the lift rarely went into the basement (that level was key-protected) ... until IBM was in and out that morning.

  6. Howard Sway Silver badge

    we eventually discovered that the management lift was interfering

    Imagine the joy of finding a bug whose solution is "the management have to walk up the stairs to the boardroom from now on".

    Hope they treated themselves to some nice cakes when they found that one.

  7. midgepad

    I think Lyons got it right, build the business and the computer and software around each other.

    But IBM sold to generic managers better.

    Ah well. The rest is becoming history. That book is well worth reading.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Just scale. IBM was already a massive business machines company before computers, running every business and every US government dept.

      A British tea shoppe is unlikely to be able to compete.

      1. Yes Me Silver badge

        Not a shoppe

        Lyons was anything but a tea shoppe, which is why they needed a computer to schedule how many of each kind of bun or cake to bake each night and where to deliver them.

        But certainly all the early British computer companies were marketing weaklings compared to IBM.

        1. katrinab Silver badge

          Re: Not a shoppe

          Indeed, they were more like the McDonalds of that era. They did actually own the franchise rights to Wimpey in the UK, who were in the same market, and initially much more popular than McDonalds.

          When Wimpy US collapsed, they ended up owning the whole thing. A successor company to Lyons took over Burger King and changed most of their Wimpies over to the Burger King format.

    2. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Then Amazon came along and did what Lyons did, only (initially) for books.

  8. David Roberts

    Nee Petri

    A bit of a dish, allegedly.

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Nee Petri

      Depends on your perspextive.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Nee Petri

        Ooh, well played. I bet you've been waiting years for the right moment to use that one :-)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Nee Petri

      A test-tube baby?

  9. Lars Silver badge

    In the greater world

    Outside of England I would mention Konrad Zuse.

    "Konrad Ernst Otto Zuse ( 22 June 1910 – 18 December 1995) was a German civil engineer, pioneering computer scientist, inventor and businessman. His greatest achievement was the world's first programmable computer; the functional program-controlled Turing-complete Z3 became operational in May 1941. Thanks to this machine and its predecessors, Zuse has often been regarded as the inventor of the modern computer.

    Zuse was noted for the S2 computing machine, considered the first process control computer. In 1941, he founded one of the earliest computer businesses, producing the Z4, which became the world's first commercial computer. From 1943[8] to 1945[9] he designed Plankalkül, the first high-level programming language.[10] In 1969, Zuse suggested the concept of a computation-based universe in his book Rechnender Raum (Calculating Space).

    In 1950/1951, the Z4 was the only working digital computer in Germany, and the second digital computer in the world to be sold, beating the Ferranti Mark 1 by five months and the UNIVAC I by ten months, but in turn being beaten by the BINAC (although that never worked at the customer's site[21]).

  10. Gene Cash Silver badge

    From the Cadby Hall wikipedia article

    Most famous employee

    In 1951, after she had met Denis Thatcher and moved to Dartford, Margaret Hilda Roberts was employed as a research chemist at Cadby Hall on emulsifying ice cream. She later became the United Kingdom's first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: From the Cadby Hall wikipedia article

      woman<citation needed> Prime Minister

    2. cpage

      Ice cream full of air was a stroke of genius

      Yes, it's thanks to her that our supermarket freezer cabinets are full of stuff described as 'ice cream' but which is mostly air. Allowing shops to sell air at the price of ice cream was a stroke of genius. It's not surprising that she went to to greater things.

      Fortunately a few companies like Ben & Jerry still produce the real un-emulsified stuff.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Ice cream full of air was a stroke of genius

        Without air, you don't have ice-cream, you have a solid block of blech.

        Ice-cream is a freeze-stabilized foam ... The milk/cream/sugar/flavo(u)r mixture is foamed with air while being frozen. Without the foaming process, the individual ingredients will separate out during the freezing process (fractional distillation by crystallization), leaving a mess. You can demonstrate this for yourself by mixing up any recipe for ice-cream and popping it into a freezer without using an ice-cream maker. Then thaw it out and make it it properly, waste not want not.

        Think you don't have an ice-cream maker? Think again ... use your favorite webby-pointy-clicky-searchy-thingie to look up "Tin Can Ice-cream".

  11. Ellipsis

    You’d have thought the related-articles link generator might be smart enough to find El Reg’s own recent article about LEO

    1. Bartholomew

      Thanks for that and the YouTube video in that about LEO is amazing: LEO: The Story of the World’s First Business Computer - Computing History UK

      "But the vast majority of people simply didn't know anything at all. And when you talked to people, they took you as some strange, esoteric being. When you said you were a programmer, they didn't know what that meant." - I feel that the first sentence should resonate with any people who work with technology.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        > When you said you were a programmer, they didn't know what that meant." .... should resonate

        Nonsense, I react node.js backend through docker to spurgle AWS to SAP interop wibble furble

        Actually I do math stuff for image processing in CUDA but web backends always sounds like gibberish.

  12. Gene Cash Silver badge


    Back when people gave a shit about having a good reputation and making a decent product.

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