The first female programmer of a commercial application worked in a cake company (and just died at 93 years old)


This week the news was made public that Mary Coombs died on February 28.. Probably, his name doesn’t ring a bell to you. And yet he played a fundamental role in the history of computing by becoming the first female programmer of a commercial application.

In 1952. But telling the story of Mary Coombs requires first learning about LEO computers.

LEO, the megacomputer dedicated to catering

By the end of World War II, the general public had already begun to hear about computers, but saw them exclusively as scientific and military tools. The possibility of dedicating them to managing the stocks or payroll of a chain of stores was not conceived.

So when John Simmons, the chief accountant at J Lyons & Co (a British tea and cake catering company with 250 outlets) convinced the company’s board to do just that in 1947, he became a revolutionaryresponsible for launching the first commercial computerized system in history

The company sent representatives to the United States to meet the ENIAC developers, and collaborated with similar academic projects in the United Kingdom. Thus, in February 1951, the computer was started Lyons Electronic Office (better known as LEO) which, as was customary at the time, occupied a huge room by itself.

And a few months later, I started running the first commercial application in the history of computing: Bakery Valuationsdedicated to calculating the cost of the ingredients used in the manufacture of bread and cakes.

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Teacher by vocation, pioneer of programming

And where does Coombs fit into this story? In 1952, our protagonist, who at that time had 23 years and still surnamed Mary Blood, she began working in the Statistics department of J Lyons & Co. I didn’t even have training in the field (he had only a French language degree and a secretarial course), but the necessary math skills.

“Initially, my job at Lyons was collecting reams of ice cream bills. Then when I became a permanent employee, I worked in a department that shipped food products to tea rooms.”

Shortly after arriving at the company, it began training members of its staff to become part of the LEO department: it offered 10 of its employees to take a course to learn how to use and program its flagship computer. She was the only woman in the group, but eventually she was one of only two people chosen for the job.

“We spent about four days learning about computers in general, about the binary system, about how computers were made. And at the end we had to take a test,”

From then on, she would work as a programmer for LEO I, LEO II and LEO III. Her first task was to take care of the maintenance of the Bakery Valuations ‘app’, and then she was in charge of developing the program that would manage the payroll of the company’s 10,000 employees. She in time she would become responsible for rewriting all the LEO II software to adapt it to LEO III (going from machine code to a primitive programming language).

the job had striking parallels with current software development in aspects such as planning on paper…

“Once you have a detailed specification that has been agreed upon, you have to draw flow charts to show how this would be done on the computer, with boxes and arrows and [detallando] every place where you need to make a decision. […] Flowcharts tended to get more complicated as time went on because programs tended to get more complicated.”

…but, yes, bug debugging sometimes ran into problems that today’s programmers don’t often encounter:

“I remember one time we had to be there all night. And we finally discovered that the administration elevator, which went up to the fifth floor where the meeting room was, was interfering [con LEO]. “But it took a long time to figure this out, because someone had to think of it as a possible explanation when all else had failed.”

In addition, J Lyons & Co. created in 1954 a subsidiary dedicated to manufacturing computers and developing software for them, Leo Computer Ltd. There, Coombs was in charge of tasks such as creating a variation of his payroll program, customized for the manufacturer of Ford automobiles.

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“She was too valuable to hold management positions”

His fellow intern, like other developers in the department, were promoted to ‘consultants’ responsible for designing systems for corporate clients, but Coombs was never offered a management position.

Interviewed by the British Library to tell her story as part of the ‘Voices of Science’ project, Coombs said she always had “a shrewd suspicion that was too useful to be promoted to management positions“.

But she was happy. She always stated that working on the first steps of commercial computing it was something “tremendously exciting” and “fun” for her:

“If I hadn’t enjoyed it so much I would have thrown my salary back […] Lyons took care of his squad, but he didn’t stand out for paying high salaries.”

She eventually married a fellow programmer, John Coombs; became responsible for writing the manuals for the computers manufactured by Leo Computer and in 1969, after the death of his daughter Anne, he left the company and spent 3 years without working. When he did it again she did it in her original vocation: as a teacher. He retired in the mid-1980s, aged 64.

“We were all pioneers in programming, it is very interesting to ‘google’ your name on the computer. […] I am proud to have participated, yes: it made my life much more interesting.”

Vía | The Register


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