“It’s stated that I’m the very first feminine industrial programmer. It is seriously instead good to sense a pioneer,” Mary Coombs – who has died aged 93 – once explained about her trailblazing vocation as a application developer for Lyons Electronic Place of work (LEO), one particular of the earliest business enterprise pcs.
She was born Mary Blood in Muswell Hill, London, in 1929, the daughter of Ruth and William Blood. Her father was a GP. On the lookout back again at her college times, she remembered: “The topic I was best at was undoubtedly maths,” nonetheless she went on to browse French and record at what was then Queen Mary College, University of London.
Coombs taught English and attended secretarial classes in Switzerland, returning in 1952. When she uncovered that the educating publish she preferred was not offered, she took a short-term position at J Lyons & Co, the food company famed at the time for its 250 tea shops across the British Isles.
Lyons could have seemed an unlikely candidate to be a pioneer in enterprise computing. On the other hand, it became a person of the to start with firms to make use of pcs to calculate ingredient quantities and expenses. Dependent on the Electronic Delay Storage Automated Calculator (EDSAC) challenge at Cambridge University, the Lyons Electronic Business (LEO) was a enormous device by today’s standards, taking up 2,500 sq ft of place at Cadby Corridor in Hammersmith, west London.
Coombs was the only lady out of a dozen internal candidates who applied to perform on LEO. “It was a simple – nicely, [a] kind of intelligence test, seriously, to see no matter if you could manipulate matters, operate out the logic of things and so on,” she recalled of the job interview process. Out of the 12 who applied, only she and her colleague Frank Land were taken on, commencing work as programmers in 1952.
With a little amount of memory, building software for LEO was a challenging affair, demanding in depth awareness of its electronic valve-based hardware as nicely as its binary “machine language”. She recalled: “LEO only supplied 2 kilobytes [2000 characters] of house into which you experienced to cram all your guidance. Lifetime was a continuous problem to essentially get a accomplished programme.”
On one event, Coombs found the uncommon cause of a bug in the procedure, later recalling: “I can recall a single specially extensive evening when it retained going improper, and we had been there all evening, simply because you experienced to have a programmer included in this, the engineers couldn’t do it on their possess … and we sooner or later found out that the administration raise, which went up to the fifth floor … was interfering [electronically].”
Lyons quickly realised it could offer its computing facilities to other organizations and organisations, developing LEO Pc Ltd in 1954. Coombs turned associated in tasks for British Oxygen, Ford Motor Company and Glyn, Mills & Co (now element of the Royal Financial institution of Scotland), and provided payroll services to the British Army and Royal Air Power.
Coombs pursued her programming function on the LEO II (1957) and LEO III (1962). In 1963, LEO grew to become component of English Electric, and in 1968 a division of Intercontinental Computers Constrained (ICL). She continued doing the job with ICL, editing manuals for their pc systems, till the stop of the Sixties.
Next her retirement from ICL, Coombs returned to training, training at a most important university from 1976 to 1985. She subsequently worked as a customer for a drinking water treatment corporation.
The legacy of this important pioneering period of growth in British computing is conserved by the LEO Pcs Culture, a charity, which explained in a statement: “Mary was the world’s initial female business enterprise computer programmer, becoming a member of the LEO workforce in 1952,” including: “Mary was a good buddy of the culture and will be unfortunately skipped.”
She married John Coombs, a computer programmer, in 1955. He died in 2012. They experienced a daughter, Anne, who died in childhood, and adopted a few children, Andrew, Paul and Gillian.
Mary Coombs, computer system programmer, born 4 February 1929, died 28 February 2022