“It’s claimed that I’m the initially female commercial programmer. It is truly fairly wonderful to sense a pioneer,” Mary Coombs – who has died aged 93 – once said about her trailblazing career as a computer software developer for Lyons Electronic Office environment (LEO), one particular of the earliest small business computer systems.
She was born Mary Blood in Muswell Hill, London, in 1929, the daughter of Ruth and William Blood. Her father was a GP. Seeking back again at her university times, she remembered: “The topic I was finest at was undoubtedly maths,” but she went on to read French and record at what was then Queen Mary Faculty, College of London.
Coombs taught English and attended secretarial courses in Switzerland, returning in 1952. When she observed that the training article she desired was not readily available, she took a momentary career at J Lyons & Co, the food stuff firm famed at the time for its 250 tea outlets throughout the British Isles.
Lyons might have seemed an unlikely applicant to be a pioneer in enterprise computing. On the other hand, it grew to become just one of the first companies to make use of computer systems to work out ingredient portions and expenses. Based mostly on the Electronic Hold off Storage Automated Calculator (EDSAC) job at Cambridge College, the Lyons Electronic Place of work (LEO) was a enormous equipment by today’s expectations, using up 2,500 sq ft of area at Cadby Corridor in Hammersmith, west London.
Coombs was the only woman out of a dozen internal candidates who utilized to do the job on LEO. “It was a very simple – nicely, [a] sort of intelligence take a look at, actually, to see irrespective of whether you could manipulate issues, function out the logic of matters and so on,” she recalled of the job interview system. Out of the 12 who utilized, only she and her colleague Frank Land were being taken on, beginning employment as programmers in 1952.
With a very small amount of memory, establishing software package for LEO was a tough affair, requiring thorough know-how of its digital valve-based mostly components as properly as its binary “machine language”. She recalled: “LEO only provided 2 kilobytes [2000 characters] of space into which you experienced to cram all your directions. Lifestyle was a continuous problem to really get a accomplished programme.”
On a person celebration, Coombs discovered the uncommon trigger of a bug in the system, later recalling: “I can try to remember just one significantly extended evening when it held likely mistaken, and we ended up there all night, simply because you experienced to have a programmer associated in this, the engineers couldn’t do it on their own … and we inevitably found out that the administration raise, which went up to the fifth ground … was interfering [electronically].”
Lyons before long realised it could provide its computing facilities to other organizations and organisations, developing LEO Computer Ltd in 1954. Coombs became concerned in initiatives for British Oxygen, Ford Motor Organization and Glyn, Mills & Co (now component of the Royal Lender of Scotland), and presented payroll solutions to the British Military and Royal Air Drive.
Coombs pursued her programming do the job on the LEO II (1957) and LEO III (1962). In 1963, LEO grew to become portion of English Electric powered, and in 1968 a division of Intercontinental Personal computers Restricted (ICL). She ongoing doing the job with ICL, modifying manuals for their pc programs, right until the end of the Sixties.
Next her retirement from ICL, Coombs returned to schooling, instructing at a major school from 1976 to 1985. She subsequently worked as a purchaser for a water treatment organization.
The legacy of this vital revolutionary period of growth in British computing is conserved by the LEO Computer systems Society, a charity, which said in a statement: “Mary was the world’s initially female company computer programmer, becoming a member of the LEO staff in 1952,” adding: “Mary was a very good good friend of the society and will be sadly missed.”
She married John Coombs, a personal computer programmer, in 1955. He died in 2012. They had a daughter, Anne, who died in childhood, and adopted a few little ones, Andrew, Paul and Gillian.
Mary Coombs, personal computer programmer, born 4 February 1929, died 28 February 2022