Mary Lee Berners-Lee: concerns over women working at night

Mary Lee Berners-Lee recalls concern at 1950s Ferranti over woman programmers working at night.

But the difficulty with my simultaneous equations is it was such a big programme that it just wouldn’t go through. It just wasn’t possible, the machine always broke down. And there was a tremendous row between the engineers and the mathematicians about this, a lot of tension. I found myself in the middle of it, because these simultaneous equations were demanding more of the machine than most programs did, and so I really was in the middle of it. There was quite a lot of stress. At first, when the machine was all new, we could just go along to the university and use it at any old time. But there was a problem that people spent too long on the machine. You normally fed your tape in and let it run, but if the answer didn’t come out correctly, there was a facility on the machine to make it go through one instruction at a time and you could then see where it went wrong. But that, of course, was fiendishly slow. It normally did, I think, forty additions a minute – no, a second, a second, and if you went through one at time, looking to see what had happened each time, you were hogging the machine, and this was not to be encouraged at all. And there was a tremendous demand for machine time and the university was using it more and more and more, and Ferranti had less and less time. And the first thing that happened was that we couldn’t use it in ordinary working hours, we could only use it in the evening. And then it got worse than that, we could only use it between midnight and eight in the morning. And the personnel department said, ‘That isn’t satisfactory, these young women being at the university with the young men engineers,’ and all the engineers were men, and so we shouldn’t go. And I remember the delight some of the male programmes had in this, that they were going to have all the machine time to themselves. But we didn’t take this, of course. The personnel department said, ‘Well then they though they should provide us with a tea lady,’ but we thought that was absolute nonsense. In retrospect, I think they might have been right, but [laughs] it was fine, really. But we could only have the machine between midnight and eight in the morning.


Why all this concern for you?


Young women with young men? This was 1950. It could’ve been very improper. Yes.

  • Interviewee Mary Lee Berners-Lee
  • Duration 00:02:51
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Thomas Lean
  • Date of interview 9/21/2010
  • Shelfmark C1379/23

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