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Oral-History:Bobby Hersom

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About Bobby Hersom

Bobby Hersom was born in 1929 in Cheshire, England. Her family moved to Birmingham where she excelled in the all-girls school. She went to Cambridge where she received her degree in math and teaching. After Cambridge, she taught in the local school district until finding a job as a computer programmer at Elliott Brothers where she met her husband, Ed Hersom.

In this interview, Hersom talks about her childhood, her initial interest in math, and her education in the Birmingham school system. She also describes her time at Cambridge. Hersom goes into detail about her computer programming at Elliott Brothers and the different software she used and helped develop there. Throughout the interview, she provides her reflections on working with computers at Elliott Brothers, Rothamstead, and Hatfield Polytechnic. She also provides her thoughts on the different programs and software she used and her advice for other women in computing.

About the Interview

BOBBY HERSOM: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 20 September 2001

Interview # 603 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 USA or ieee-history@ieee.org. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Bobby Hersom, an oral history conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Bobby Hersom
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 20 September 2001
PLACE: Bobby Hersom's home in Thirsk, England

Background and Education

[Note: Bobby Hersom’s husband, Ed Hersom, was also present and made occasional comments. Some of these were not picked up by the recorder.]

Abbate:

This is an interview with Bobby Hersom on September 20th, 2001.

I always start at the beginning, so can you tell me where you were born, and where you grew up?

Hersom:

I was born in 1929 in Cheshire. I moved to Selby in Yorkshire when I was three and a half, and went to school there until I was seven and a half, and then we moved near Birmingham. I think my parents were anxious to move to somewhere where they knew there was a very good school, because they knew I was going to need one! I remember about the age of eight or nine saying, “I’m going to Oxford to do maths!” When I was about thirteen or fourteen, I heard that Cambridge was better than Oxford for maths, so I said, “I’m going to Cambridge to read maths!”

Abbate:

So you know quite at an early age that you were interested in maths.

Hersom:

Oh, yes! There was no question, you know.

Abbate:

Were you the only child?

Hersom:

No, I was the oldest of three. My brother had—I don’t know if he had to begin with, but eventually he was brain-damaged, and it was rather hard with him. And I had a younger sister, who these days is in America.

Abbate:

What did your parents do for a living?

Hersom:

Ah, well that was one reason for the move: my father was an Inspector of Taxes, and they moved them around every four years.

Abbate:

Why?

Hersom:

I suppose so that they didn’t to know too much about their.... I don’t know! I don’t know why; it was just what happened. And he managed to get himself moved around [within] the area, so that (possibly by lodging out for the week) we would stay in the same place, so that I could go to school in Birmingham when I was eleven.

Abbate:

What kind of school was that, in Birmingham?

Hersom:

Well, when the Education Act came in in 1944, it became a direct-grant school, which was one of those taking their money direct from the government—not being organized by the local authority. These days it’s an independent school. It’s part of the King Edward’s Foundation in Birmingham.

Abbate:

Was that just girls, or mixed?

Hersom:

The school was just girls, but there was a boys’ school as well.

Abbate:

But that was separate.

Hersom:

It was separate, yes. It was a girls’ school.

At school I was just fairly good at everything, and very good at maths—and very good at netball, and very good at gym, and singing, and did all the usual things! I mean, it was during the War, so it was a bit restricted.

Abbate:

Did your parents encourage you to have a career?

Hersom:

We, we never talked about careers, but they certainly—because I had this ability, they encouraged that I should stay at school. They expected that I would stay at school and carry on. My father was a very bright boy at school. He won a scholarship to the Devon County School, where he progressed rapidly through the school and then sat in the Sixth Form for about four years, taking his highers again and again. I don’t know whether the school had never heard of a university, but he didn’t go anywhere. My mother had done kindergarten training—teaching—but I think at that time, it wasn’t expected that married women carried on working.

Abbate:

So she didn’t.

Hersom:

No.

So, what do you want to know about my school?

Abbate:

Were you generally encouraged by your teachers at that school?

Hersom:

Oh yes. Later on, after I’d left school, one of the teachers said, “It’s so easy: they just teach themselves!”

Abbate:

The students at that school?

Hersom:

Because they took a high-intelligence intake; so that the average intelligence was [very high].

Abbate:

So it was quite selective.

Hersom:

Yes. Oh, it was definitely selective.

Abbate:

And then did you end up going to Cambridge?

Hersom:

Oh yes! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Was that just very easy? I mean, I know you have to take those special exams to go there.

Hersom:

Yes. I mean, I wanted to do it, and my teacher thought I was capable, and I did the work. I did enough work, and I did the other things as well. I always had a lot of energy to do these things. I didn’t get a scholarship—I couldn’t go to London with a scholarship—but I went to Cambridge, and that was quite good.

Abbate:

I don’t know the system too well. If you didn’t have a scholarship, did you have to work at the same time? Or how did that work?

Hersom:

There were grants; there were scholarships. There were state scholarships, and the year I was doing them, they decided that too many state scholars went to Oxford and Cambridge, and so they would tell you where to go; and this was very inhibiting: you had to fill in this list of universities you wanted to go to. And I really was very bothered. What if I get a state scholarship that says that I have to go to Birmingham University? It really bothered me, so I don’t think I did as well in the exams as I could have done. I don’t know, but it did bother me. But I got a county scholarship, which paid some of the expenses, and my father paid the rest, and then—just be thrifty. I did very little in the way of vacation jobs.

Abbate:

And how did you like Cambridge?

Hersom:

Ah, wonderful! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Everything you’d hoped it would be?

Hersom:

Well, I hadn’t really thought about it; but I mean, I did a lot of singing, I played netball all the time—and that’s why I didn’t do very much work! [both laugh.] It really is!

Abbate:

I don’t actually know what netball is.

Hersom:

It’s a smaller form of basketball. It’s on a smaller court, and the nets are shorter, and you can’t bounce the ball. It’s a very quick game, and you can go flat-out for a fairly short time; [it’s] a shorter game. Well, it was; I think they’ve changed it now.

Abbate:

So you took a maths degree at Cambridge?

Hersom:

I did.

Abbate:

When did you get that degree? What year did you get that degree?

Hersom:

I got my degree in 1950.

Abbate:

Did you know what you wanted to do with it?

Hersom:

No. And I always said, “I do not want to teach.” But I didn’t know what I did want to do, and I didn’t know why I didn’t want to teach, and doing a year’s teacher training would give me another year in Cambridge, which would mean I could go on playing netball. I told the principal, and she said, “Perhaps we like people to go somewhere else to do it.” And I said, “But I want to stay in Cambridge and play netball.” “Oh, all right!” she said. [both laugh.]

Abbate:

So you signed up for a year of teacher training.

Hersom:

Yes. And at the beginning of the year, the Professor said, “I believe there are going to be regulations to have to have the qualification to teach; and they say that if you attend the lectures, it will be all right.” So I attended the lectures.

Abbate:

And was it all right?

Hersom:

Yes! [laughs.]

Abbate:

So you ended up with a teaching degree in ‘51, I guess.

Hersom:

Yes. So I went to teach, and I didn’t like it! And everybody said the first year is the worst, so I stayed another year, and by the middle of that term I said, “At the end of the summer I am leaving.” I like doing things myself; I don’t like telling other people what to do. And you say it—you teach them; you tell them something—and then you have to tell it again, and again, and again!

Abbate:

So you were teaching in a . . .

Hersom:

In another school in Birmingham, actually. [laughs.] Well, you would never guess the reason I went back there: because I had the residency for playing netball for the county! If I’d gone somewhere else, I wouldn’t have had the qualification to play for that county. So it was another of the King Edward Foundations, but this one was not so highly selective; and I did not like teaching.

So, towards the end of that time, I started looking for something else. I knew the previous Research Director at Elliott Brothers, and friends of mine—Ruth and George Felton—were working there, and I said, “Do you think I can get a job there?” I can’t remember whether I wrote; I suppose I must have written. Anyway, I had an interview with the current Head, and somebody who was in the Research Group called Hersom! [She and her husband, Ed Hersom, laugh.]

There was a bit of upheaval going on with Elliott at the time, but after some eventual time, they did offer me a job there.

Working for Elliott Brothers

Abbate:

Now, had you had any exposure to computers before that?

Hersom:

It depends what you mean by “exposure.” When I was at Cambridge, one of the mathematical societies had a talk about the EDSAC that was being built. But I hadn’t really appreciated what was involved, what was going on. You just knew about it; it was always sort of . . .

Abbate:

So you didn’t actually use it.

Hersom:

No, no. It wasn’t in a usable state at that time. And then, it was all sort of frightfully clever Ph.D.’s and things that were doing that.

Abbate:

But were you interested in the idea?

Hersom:

I didn’t know enough to be interested, or not. And then I went to Elliott’s and found out I was. Oh, the first week there: compared with teaching, it was wonderful! I was doing something interesting, that I could do.

Abbate:

What were you actually doing for them?

Hersom:

Well, after the first week I was writing programs for Nicholas; that was the research machine.

Abbate:

Was that in assembler at that point? What were you writing in?

Hersom:

It was called the “translation input.” It was a mnemonic language, so it was—well I suppose . . .

Ed Hersom:

It’s like assembler.

Hersom:

It was like assembler, really. Yes. Several other machines at that stage, people were still writing things out in binary; but this had its “A” for “add” and “W” for “write” (which was to write back into the store) and “M” for “multiply” and things like that. And your timing was quite important, because the words were going round in a loop of 128 words, so you could catch them there.

Abbate:

This was a drum? What was the memory?

Hersom:

Delay lines.

Abbate:

Ah, delay lines.

Hersom:

On a board. And if you gave it an instruction referring to address five, and then gave it an address six, it would have passed it by then, so you had to wait another time [cycle]. So you had to cunningly set your addresses.

Abbate:

So you had to have an awareness of what the memory was physically doing in order to make efficient use of it.

Hersom:

Oh, yes.

Abbate:

How did you interact with the machine? Was this punch cards, or tapes, or . . . ?

Hersom:

This was a tape: a five-hole tape, with actually printed symbols underneath—letters or symbols underneath—so when tapes were punched, they could be checked. This was read through a tape reader; and if you were lucky, it got the program to start and run!

Abbate:

Did you run them yourselves, or did you have to give them to an operator?

Hersom:

No, we ran them ourselves. And at that time, if the machine ran for half an hour, it was doing well! [laughs.]

Abbate:

You mean, without having a hardware problem, or a software problem?

Hersom:

Without having a mistake and coming to a grinding halt. Of course, when you were trying out a program, it might be coming to a grinding halt anyway; because like all programming, you could make mistakes, and you’d look through it and not see that you’d made a mistake.

Abbate:

Were there particular types of mistakes that were especially easy to make?

Hersom:

I can’t remember that.

If you wanted output—if you were printing your output—you had to send every signal for every letter to the output. I mean, you didn’t just say “Print this off.” You had to go round in a loop, printing the characters.

Abbate:

What sort of software were you developing?

Hersom:

One I was largely concerned with was some radar readings. They filmed the plane, and they had this film, with three girls who operated this machine for reading the film. They’d move it on, they’d get a picture, and then they’d take the reading of the . . . [To Ed Hersom:] Was it the tilt of the plane?

Ed Hersom:

It was the pitch of the plane . . . [some of this comment not audible.] Subsequently they would compare that with the radar signal itself.

Abbate:

So they were comparing the radar with the photograph?

Hersom:

Yes; and then that was analyzed. This program read in the tape—the girls punched the tape of the plane, and then there must have been another tape from the TeleDelta, which I can’t remember—and analyzed the error. So we had the tables of these.

Experience with Computer Programming

Abbate:

Did you have to draw on your mathematical background to do this?

Hersom:

No, not directly; but it’s more a way of thinking—of thinking precisely, and filling in all the details. We used to say, “The difference between a physicist and a mathematician is: the physicist says, ‘Epsilon tends to nought,’ [but] a mathematician has to prove that epsilon tends to nought.” And so you have to be precise; you have to get everything just right. And I think this is where that comes into programming.

Abbate:

So programming came naturally to you?

Hersom:

I suppose so. Yes, I think.

Abbate:

Was that fun?

Hersom:

Oh, yes! Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Abbate:

Did you have to work long hours on these things?

Hersom:

No, no. We worked 9:00 to 5:30. [Inaudible comment.]

I wasn’t directly involved, but when they did work long hours— They did the first analysis of parliamentary election results, as they came through, on Nicholas—on this machine. I wasn’t involved with the programming, but I think I was there on the night, doing something.

Abbate:

I didn’t know that.

Hersom:

Yes! 1955.

Ed Hersom:

[Comments that they got the election data from Reuters.]

Abbate:

So you got the raw input from Reuters, and then did calculations and sent back your predictions?

Hersom:

Yes. And they were pretty good, too! They had to be done on a simple scale, where there were only two candidates.

Abbate:

But you could take fairly early returns and predict the outcome?

Hersom:

Yes, and they were very good.

Abbate:

Was there a big impact from that? I mean in terms of publicity?

Hersom:

No.

Abbate:

Did the public know that there had been computerized predictions?

Hersom:

Not at that stage, no; because they didn’t . . . They went over on the television a few years later; they still weren’t very good. We were doing better at home with a slide rule, weren’t we? [laughs.] I mean, we did! We used this method at home, and we were getting very good predictions.

Abbate:

Now, how long did you stay at Elliott?

Hersom:

After I’d been not there not much more than a year, we got married, and I started working half-time—because there was a lot to do. We had a big garden; we had a big house.

Abbate:

Was that common?

Hersom:

To work half-time? Not very, no. You had to fiddle it a bit to . . .

On Other Women in the Field

Abbate:

So there weren’t other women doing that?

Hersom:

Well, certainly not in the programming [group].

Abbate:

Were there a lot of other women in the programming group?

Hersom:

There were several. I’ve never thought to compare the numbers. They came and went. One of them was [the woman] whom I mentioned to you [before the interview], Dina Vaughan, who set up her own services. [To Ed Hersom:] There were quite a number of women, weren’t there?

Ed Hersom:

Oh, yes.

Ed Hersom:

There was Sheila, who died.

Ed Hersom:

Margaret Nichols.

Ed Hersom:

Margaret Nichols, yes.

Ed Hersom:

Bridget?

Hersom:

Bridget Rose. That was earlier than me; she’d gone by the time I came. Oh, and Ruth, of course, had gone by the time I came.

Ed Hersom:

Ruth Felton.

Hersom:

But then, who were the men? There was George [Felton]— he left; Hugh [Devonald]—he left; Bruce Bambrough—he left. I never really thought about the proportions and so on; it’s just what we were doing.

Well, eventually it was a bit better paid than teaching. I took a very tiny drop in salary when I moved to Elliott’s, but that was more than compensated by the rise I got the following Easter. Definitely more profitable than teaching!

Abbate:

And they were doing well as a company at that point.

Hersom:

Well, other things. We weren’t contributing really to how they were doing. But they were building more machines.

Abbate:

Did you go back to full-time programming?

Hersom:

No. When I had children, it was pretty uncommon to be able to leave your child anywhere—to have child-minders—not to mention frowned upon!

Abbate:

This was the mid-fifties by this point?

Hersom:

Yes, mid-to-late fifties. Yes.

No, it would have been very, very difficult. I kept up with programming, because Ed would come home with his program and say, “Where has this gone wrong? Let me explain it to you.” So we’d go through this, and when I’d asked enough silly questions, it would suddenly dawn on him what was wrong with his program! [laughs.] It worked every time! But I kept up with what was going on, what was happening; and eventually, when the kids were both at school, Elliott’s had odd jobs that needed doing that they couldn’t put anybody on but wanted them done, which I did at home, going in to [run them]. This was a different machine by then.

I tried working for Steve Shirley’s outfit, FI, but that wasn’t really my sort of programming. It wasn’t COBOL, but it was PL-1, which was just as bad, if not worse! [laughs.]

Abbate:

So that was more business-oriented?

Working for Rothamstead

Hersom:

It was, very much, yes. Completely boring!

And then [I worked on] other projects that Ed was working for: one for the Lee Valley Water Company, and I did a bit of work for him for that.

Eventually I read that Rothamstead, the Agricultural Research Station, not far away, was getting a big machine. Now, they had these large machines: so a lot of operators, a lot of lab, and time-sharing on it; so I thought I could do something about that, using FORTRAN, which I’d learnt by then. I knew somebody who worked at Rothamstead, so I said, “Go and find out if they’ll have me half-time!” And so he said, “Well, he says he doesn’t have anybody half-time, but you can go and talk to him.” So I did, and he said to his secretary, “No no no, we’re just talking”; and by the end of it he was saying, “Oh, you can bring those application forms in! [both laugh.]

Abbate:

So was that relatively—I don’t know if “easy” is the right word. Was it manageable then to be working part-time and raising a family?

Hersom:

Well, I managed it!

[recording pauses]

Abbate:

I was actually wondering about the work itself. Were you able to do some of it from home? Was it relatively flexible?

Hersom:

When I was at Rothamstead?

Abbate:

Yes.

Hersom:

No, I was supposed to work regular hours—but then, if something’s interesting and you want to think about it, you do take it home—do it at home—and I reckoned I could do more than half the work in half-time. And then there would be days when I went to a meeting, or when to one of the other institutes or something, which was a whole day. And that was working on all sorts of general problems that came up in agriculture, and there were a lot of departments: Soil Science, Chemistry, Soil Survey, Physics—I had quite a lot to do with the Physics Department.

Abbate:

So, all scientific computing.

Hersom:

Yes.

And then one of the others wanted to work half-time, so they thought, “Oh, well that was a good thing,” and then there were two of us working half-time—one full person.

Abbate:

Was that also a woman working half-time?

Hersom:

Yes.

Abbate:

Were there any particularly outstanding projects you worked on at that point?

Hersom:

I started off by doing a program for analyzing potato diseases for somebody who worked in the Plant Pathology Department. I think he’d got something working on the old 401 machine. That was an Elliott’s 401. The big machine we were working on was the ICL System 4, which was supposed to be a copy of the IBM 360, with a language called “Multi-Job.” [We called it] Multi-Bodge! [laughs.]

Abbate:

And that was the time-sharing machine?

Hersom:

Yes, that’s right. You worked from a terminal. And it expanded and expanded and got more terminals, and it got a little bit faster. So I used to do some work experimenting with whether what it said in the manual actually worked—like how you use magnetic tapes, and what you could do about labeling them as “reading only.” Well yes, you could say it was “read-only,” but then you couldn’t read it! Things like that would happen.

As I said, I did this potato disease analysis program for somebody. Oh, and then I was doing something with the Physics Department. What was I doing with the Physics Department?

Abbate:

Now, you said a minute ago you were seeing if things actually worked the way they were supposed to? That all the magnetic tapes worked?

Hersom:

Oh, yes.

Abbate:

So, this was a fairly new machine, then?

Hersom:

Yes.

Abbate:

And so it came from the manufacturer, but that didn’t necessarily mean it did what it was supposed to do?

Hersom:

Mmm.

Abbate:

So part of working with it was figuring out how to make it actually work properly.

Hersom:

Yes; yes.

Abbate:

Did you get any help from the manufacturers, or was it just up to you?

Hersom:

Oh, well, you had to spell out all that was wrong, and what happened, and then it went off and disappeared into the innards of the ICL!

Abbate:

Did it ever come back out? [laughs.]

Hersom:

[laughs.] Occasionally!

And then there was helping other people who were writing their programs—who were scientists rather than programmers—to sort out what they’d done wrong. You got quite used to the things they would do commonly, and I think I had quite a good reputation among these people for sorting out their problems.

Abbate:

They were probably all using FORTRAN at this point?

Hersom:

Yes. There were a few people using BASIC, and then there were some programs—that was mainly in the department—using assembler.

Abbate:

How did you like using the time-sharing system?

Hersom:

Well, it was slow!

Abbate:

Was it better or worse than the way you had done it before?

Hersom:

Well, it’s always better if you’ve got the machine to yourself. I mean, you would get holdups. You would get somebody who would do something so stupid that it would crash the machine! I mean, the machine wasn’t nearly as well-protected back then as it is now.

Ed Hersom:

[evidently referring to their personal computer:] I still crash the machine!

Hersom:

Yes, but it doesn’t often have to be rebooted. There’s still something there.

Working from Home for Hatfield Polytechnic

Abbate:

How long were you at Rothamstead?

Hersom:

I was there eleven years, and then at that point Ed had got early voluntary redundancy—he was working at what was Hatfield Polytechnic then—so that he became a consultant. So he was doing the same work he was doing before, but he didn’t have to run the group as well. He didn’t have to do the management; he just did the work; and so I joined in with that. This, again, was working a lot in FORTRAN. I’d done more in FORTRAN than Ed had.

Abbate:

So you were working for Hatfield Polytechnic?

Hersom:

So we were working for ourselves, billing Hatfield Polytechnic as consultants.

Abbate:

Were you working at home at that point?

Hersom:

Some at home, and some . . . By then there were small computers we had at home that we could link in to Hatfield.

Abbate:

Where were you living at that point?

Hersom:

Saint Albans.

Abbate:

Was that an improvement, working at home?

Hersom:

Well, at that point, yes! Everybody sort of was bickering at Rothamstead. There was all these changes going on in research funding and what people should be doing and so on, so everybody was anxious about their work and their job. So if you got your own setup, it was. . . . At an earlier stage, I liked working at home: you work at home and then sort of go in occasionally to meet people or run a job or whatever. It’s quite satisfactory, yes. You can choose your hours better.

Abbate:

And this was the early 1980s at this point?

Hersom:

Yes, that’s right.

It also fitted in well with the long weekends we needed to go and visit our daughter, who was then a farmer in County Durham. You couldn’t just pop up and back again; you really needed a long weekend; so not having to ask your boss for yet another couple of days off was more convenient. Much more flexible, and you can work your own hours.

Family Life

Abbate:

You had two children, and one daughter became a farmer?

Hersom:

Mmm-hm.

Abbate:

What was the other?

Hersom:

[laughs.] Read maths at Cambridge! Works on computers, lives in Oxford.

Abbate:

And is that a daughter or a son?

Hersom:

A son. Yes. We had a family of three mathematicians and one non-mathematician, and we said, “It’s very good for us to have a non-mathematician! You think differently.” [Imitates disgruntled daughter:] “It’s not nice to be the only one, you mathematicians!” she said.

Abbate:

So your son followed in your footsteps?

Hersom:

Yes. He’s independent as well. He’s very good.

Abbate:

Was he exposed to computers a lot as a child? Because of your work?

Hersom:

Well, yes, I suppose he always knew about them; and then when he was at school, they started working with the Hatfield machine, and by the sixth form, he was teaching the teacher who was responsible for teaching the children how to use it! [laughs.]

Abbate:

You worked as a consultant for Hatfield until you retired?

Hersom:

Yes. It was his actual retirement; I wasn’t quite there.

Reflection on Working with Computers

Abbate:

What have you found to be the most satisfying about working with computers?

Hersom:

Finding a solution to something that worked—and did what you wanted, and gave you some results! [pause.]

Ed was reminding me of something: Later on in Rothamstead, I worked on an editor that somebody had developed for editing your programs. This was very, very clumsy in Multi-Job, and this chap designed a much, much better editor. And this was all part of the difficult thing: they were all complaining they couldn’t understand the manual, so I worked out a way of writing the manual in the sort of format you get in some of these “teach yourself” books: “Do you want this? If so, go to page so-and-so.” “If you want this, go to page so-and-so.” “Is it that? Go to page something else.” And I worked out a manual, and they all thought it was marvelous—”This is just what we want!”—except my current supposed-to-be boss, who said, “If I’d known you were doing that, I wouldn’t have let you do it!” [laughs.] It wasn’t “rigorous” enough!

Abbate:

No value placed on documentation?

Hersom:

No. No, not that sort of documentation: not something that actually helped people! [both laugh.]

Abbate:

Did you end up doing a significant amount of documentation?

Hersom:

No, no. I don’t like doing it; it was just that there seemed to be a demand there. Everything was a little bit . . . I suppose I did things I was interested in—I didn’t go and find out if they actually wanted me to do it!

Abbate:

Could you sort of pick and choose projects?

Hersom:

Well, I did! [laughs.]

Abbate:

That must be nice!

Hersom:

Well, I said, “This needs doing, and he doesn’t know how to do it.”

Abbate:

So you could take the initiative and do something that needed doing?

Hersom:

Yes. I mean, this manual I started writing in my own time anyway.

Abbate:

Did people re-use each other’s code? Was there a lot of sharing—you know, someone had done a similar problem, and you tried to reuse their code?

Hersom:

Well, if you thought it was of general use, then you’d make it generally available. One of the big things going on there was a statistics program called “GenStat,” which was the general statistics program, written by the Statistics Group; and this was being made available to all the agricultural institutes who were online to our machine. So they had some great manual to wade through to learn their GenStat. But fortunately I had nothing to do with that, really. The Statistics and the Computing Department had started off as all the same department, but then it had been split, I think when we got the big time-sharing machine.

Abbate:

Were people mainly working individually on a problem, or was there sort of a team of people working on big problems?

Hersom:

Well, [for something] like GenStat, there’d be a team of people working on that, and then other people using it.

Abbate:

But you weren’t working on that?

Hersom:

No; it’s just that that was on the machine. Ours . . . I think people in different departments were working on their own problem, but they’d probably have talked to the Computer Department about it, and we might be writing some of it; and then if somebody else was talking you’d say, “This is similar to what the Physics Department is doing. You can use some of this.” But I think mainly it was individual programmers.

Abbate:

Did you ever get the sense that because you’re a woman, you didn’t have the same access to promotions, or training, or any other kind of advancement?

Hersom:

Possibly because I was working half-time I had that, but no, not in other ways.

Reflection on Technology

Abbate:

Obviously the whole field of computing has changed quite a bit since you started. I’m wondering what stands out most for you in the way it’s changed: either the technology or the culture of it.

Hersom:

Well, the technology, obviously—that you can have these things in your pocket, and quick access to the information you want. [pause.] And, of course, that it is so accessible to many ordinary people now. My non-mathematical daughter the other day was called in to help somebody put their computer straight! She would never have looked at a computer.

Some of the educational programs are put on the personal computers: teaching the bones of the skeleton is one. I mean, they are so good and so much more interesting, the lessons that they get at school!

Ed Hersom:

Email.

Hersom:

Oh, email! Yes! Email. No delays in communicating across the Atlantic. I mean, as soon as this happened [the attack nine days earlier on September 11, 2001], we sent an email to my sister, because her two [children] were likely to have been around: but one was on holiday in Spain, and the other was in California.

Reflection on Women in Computing

Abbate:

Do you get the sense that careers in computing are more open to women than they used to be? Or not really?

Hersom:

I notice that a lot of advertisements say they don’t discriminate, and that’s all there now, so I suppose so. I would expect this.

Abbate:

Well, did you get the sense at all . . . You see, I’m not really sure: back when you started, did it seem like an area that was already open to women? Did it seem unusual to be working with computers?

Hersom:

Computers were new things. I mean, I never, ever thought, “Oh! I’m a woman working with computers! Gosh!” [both laugh.] If you’ve spent three, four years in Cambridge: well, at that time, your proportion of men to women was perhaps twenty-to-one. You just don’t notice the numbers! You know there are plenty of competent women around, and you know there are a lot of men; and if you’ll bear it, then you’ll do all right. I mean, if anybody ever tried to squash me for being a woman, I was soon able to answer it! [laughs.]

Abbate:

So it never was an issue for you.

Hersom:

Yes. And as I said, when I went for this interview at Rothamstead, I came home and I said [to my husband], “Well, having been arguing with you, that was no bother at all!” [laughs.]

Training and Experience with Computers

Abbate:

Did you have any people who were mentors to you and gave you advice or helped you along?

Hersom:

Well, I just suppose anybody who’d been working on this Nicholas machine at the time I joined Elliott’s would always help. Nobody in particular.

Abbate:

How did they train you for that? Did you just show up and kind of pick things up, or did they have a little course that they had for the Nicholas machine?

Hersom:

Oh, no! There was no course. [laughs.] No, no, no. “Here’s how it works: now do it!” [laughs.] I think I was given some general books—a general book, perhaps; the first book? [To Ed Hersom:] The first week, you gave me a book on computing or whatever; I can’t remember now what it was that I read. And then you said, “Here: this is what you have to do to write a program. Now write a program!” [laughs.]

Abbate:

So you would kind of apprentice to the more experienced people, in the sense that you were trying things out and they would . . .

Hersom:

And if I wanted to know something, I’d ask. Or else I could see it myself; I’d go though, see what . . . All you have to learn, perhaps, is you must go through each instruction and say, “What happens there? What happens there? What happens there? What happens there?” And you have to do that, and then see why it doesn’t work: what went wrong.

Abbate:

Did they tell you to use flow charts? Or was there any formal way to . . . ?

Hersom:

Yes. There was a great flow chart of how Nicholas worked on the wall, all the valves and delay lines and so on. And yes, we did write some flow charts. I can’t remember that I did that perhaps from the very beginning. I probably did, because there was probably some in this book that I read—the general book I was given to read. Yes, there was probably flow charts in that. But it was so early on that there really weren’t any conventions of . . .

Ed Hersom:

[Comments that George Felton wrote a book.]

Hersom:

Yes, I can remember that.

Abbate:

George Felton wrote a book on . . . ?

Hersom:

On the programming.

Ed Hersom:

He and his wife, together.

Abbate:

So he had a book that you could learn how to use the Nicholas machine.

Hersom:

Just a manual, really. Well, a lot of it was trial-and-error:

“What happens if you do this?”

“Well, look.”

“What happens if you put these two letters together and put it in?”

“Oh gosh! That squares the number. That’s useful!” [laughs.]

Abbate:

So, I guess because you had hands-on access to the machine, you could do it more that way.

Hersom:

Yes.

Abbate:

. . . as opposed to: I know some people only had very limited access to the machine, so you had to have it as perfect as you could get before you ran it, or it might be another day before you got the results back.

Hersom:

Yes.

Abbate:

I guess you could experiment more.

Hersom:

Yes; yes.

And one thing you’d learn over the time was to split things as far as you could into [smaller modules], whether it was subroutines . . . . At one time we had modules that were called “produles,” for “programming modules.” That wasn’t on Nicholas. So you wrote your flow charts—you wrote your program—as produles, and you’d say, “You write this produle that has this input and wants that output,” and [so forth].

Abbate:

So it was modular fairly early on, the software development? Or there was some effort to make it so?

Hersom:

Well, it happened, rather than effort.

Ed Hersom:

Subroutines were invented by David Wheeler in Cambridge, and we followed him.

Abbate:

So the art was developing as you were going along.

Hersom:

Yes.

Abbate:

Was there any accomplishment you were particularly proud of, in terms of making something run, or making some program do some difficult thing?

Hersom:

Well, we used to leave the tapes running all night, didn’t we? A long, long, long data tape, and position it so that the tape reader would read a set of data, do the programming, print out the result, read the next thing. I mean, one program took a long time on this, so it had to be run overnight, because you interfered with everybody else to get all this data read. So we left it running when we went to work, and we said to the night watchman, “If you’re passing the lab, if anything looks wrong—this is how it’s supposed to go, and the printing, and that—if anything looks wrong, just push that on/off switch.” Well, one morning we came in and looked at the results: “Oh, that’s funny. Something’s gone wrong, but now they’re all right again!” So when we saw the night watchman, we said, “Did anything happen? Was it all right?” And he said, “It wasn’t going properly, so I switched it off; and then I thought, ‘I wonder what will happen if I switch it on again?’ So I did, and it went all right!” We never had any idea what went wrong.

Abbate:

It was some transient hardware problem?

Ed Hersom:

[Explains that the mercury delay lines would occasionally drop or pick up digits.]

Abbate:

So the memory was not quite reliable . . .

Ed Hersom:

Oh, no, no.

Abbate:

. . . and occasionally could drop something.

Maybe your night watchman was experimenting. [laughs.]

Hersom:

Yes, that’s right! [laughs.]

Abbate:

I hadn’t realized that it took so long. So, to run an ordinary program would take an hour? Or how long would it take?

Hersom:

Well, it did—what? eighty instructions a second?

Ed Hersom:

Forty instructions per second.

Hersom:

Forty?

Ed Hersom:

Oh, sorry: forty per page.

Hersom:

Yes. Eighty instructions a second.

Ed Hersom:

There were two instructions to a word, and forty lines per page, and that would be one second.

Hersom:

You’re writing, effectively, in assembler; so that if eighty of those instructions would take a second, you’re not getting on very fast! [laughs.] And you’re limited in your store, as well, so you can’t write a very advanced program. It’s got to be a job that you can [fit in a small space]. And you were then interested in cutting out every single bit of instructions you could, if you could do it faster.

Abbate:

So that was a real pressure or incentive to make it run faster, because the machine itself was not so fast?

Hersom:

Yes.

Abbate:

Did people have special tricks to eliminate instructions?

Hersom:

Oh, I can’t remember.

Abbate:

Well, not specifically; but was there a sense that people were constantly trying to come up with a faster way to do it?

Hersom:

Oh, yes! Yes.

Ed Hersom:

[Not clear: “You couldn’t do very much” or “You didn’t have to do very much.”]

Hersom:

No. You just wrote like that, I think.

Abbate:

Would people share ideas?

Hersom:

Oh, yes.

Abbate:

“I made it calculate with two less instructions. Here’s how to do it.” That kind of thing?

Hersom:

Oh, you’d go and say, “Oh! I did such-and such,” and tell everybody what you’d done. So if it was relevant, they’d say, “Oh, that’s a good idea.”

Abbate:

Was there a lot of camaraderie?

Hersom:

Oh, yes! Yes.

Abbate:

How big was the group? I don’t remember if you said . . .

Hersom:

Well, one room had got the secretary and the girls reading in; and there was probably three in my office. Sometimes there was four. Three—there was only three, really. Eight; about eight people.

Abbate:

So, fairly small.

Ed Hersom:

Lots of people would come in as students, and we would take them on. They’d come in for three weeks or so, and then they disappeared.

Hersom:

I was just thinking: do you know the name of Iann Barron?

Abbate:

I don’t think I do.

Hersom:

Yes, well, as a vacation student, he shared an office with me; and he became a well-known man.

Ed Hersom:

And Henry Orde.

Hersom:

Henry Orde? He didn’t become a well-known man, did he?

Ed Hersom:

Well, he became the Technical Director of NCR.

Abbate:

So that was more a learning experience for the students?

Hersom:

Henry Orde wasn’t a student. He was employed there. Yes, well, like vacation jobs that students do now.

Abbate:

The students didn’t come in already knowing how to program, did they?

Hersom:

No.

Abbate:

So they had to learn it?

Hersom:

Yes, yes.

Abbate:

They probably left as soon as they were useful!

Hersom:

Oh, well, our son did the same thing, didn’t he? Didn’t he learn CORAL there?

Abbate:

CORAL: was that a language?

Hersom:

Yes. I don’t know anything about it; I can’t remember now. It would be after our time [at Elliott’s].

Ed Hersom:

I think it was on the 803.

Hersom:

I can’t remember what machine CORAL used. The 803 had a nice BASIC-like language.

Ed Hersom:

“SIR”: Symbolic Input Routine.

Hersom:

What, the 803?

Ed Hersom:

Yes.

Hersom:

I don’t remember that. I remember programming it.

Abbate:

Now, the jobs you did for Elliott: Those were contracts for research groups or something?

Hersom:

One was the—oh, Louis and his job. I can’t remember anything.

Ed Hersom:

DeHavilland’s?

Hersom:

No, it wasn’t DeHavilland’s I was doing it for. It was this: they did their hand calculations on pipes; fluid motion in pipes. They did hand calculations on it, and they wanted it programmed, so I got that. You know, “Here’s the method; write the program.” So I wrote the program, and then they said, “Why doesn’t that agree with our hand calculations?” So I had to go through it and show how because you were more accurate in the fifth or sixth decimal place or something, you were going to get a different answer. So it was actually the computer answers that were right—not theirs! [laughs.]

Abbate:

I’m just wondering about the structure. These were people who had bought Elliott machines?

Hersom:

No, it was part of the Elliott organization; when I was working from home. This was part of the Elliott organization—another part of it. There was a computer in the Elliott’s they were working at, and they would get somebody to write the program; and nobody wanted to spend any money on this, so they got me to do it!

Abbate:

Well, I know IBM, for instance: their customers who had machines, IBM would also write programs for them if they needed it.

Hersom:

Ah, I see. No, this wasn’t that. This was actually Elliott’s, and they had the 803 at Park Royal.

Weighing peas was another job! [laughs.]

Abbate:

[laughs.] All right, I see that now. I wasn’t sure if it was some university who was paying them to do this, or who.

Hersom:

Oh, no.

Abbate:

So this is all in-house—but very far-flung. Weighing peas: that was a job?

Hersom:

Well, that was nothing to do with me. When they first started frozen foods, putting the right number of peas in a packet.

Abbate:

That was a computer problem?

Hersom:

Well, yes, connected to the weighing. It wasn’t me; I didn’t do it.

Abbate:

I guess that would be quite a range [of problems that Elliott needed computers for].

It sounds like you enjoyed working with computers.

Hersom:

Oh, definitely, yes!

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women who might be thinking of going into computing today?

Hersom:

If you have to think, do something different! [laughs.]

Abbate:

What do you mean?

Hersom:

Oh, like anything else. I mean, you try it in your vacation or whatever, and if you think it suits you, you do it! [pause.] Like what I did with teaching: Why didn’t I like it? I’d better go and try. No, I don’t like it; I will leave.

Abbate:

Would you recommend that they try it to see if they like it?

Hersom:

Oh, I think so, yes! There’s a good deal now of school placements: somebody who has an idea to do a particular job, that they should go and work for a week or two as part of the flow. Something like that would probably be helpful.

Ed Hersom:

It’s very different now—the windows and so forth.

Hersom:

Yes. Oh yes; I mean, it’s a completely different sort of computing.

Abbate:

Do you think the popular impression about what working with computers involves: do you think that’s accurate, in the sense that that’s what it’s really like to work with them?

Hersom:

I don’t know what the popular impression is! I mean, I know in the early days it was: “Oh, you do that? You must be clever!” [pause.] I mean, computing is so widespread now, it’s a bit like “engineer.” You say you’re an engineer if you design an engine—or clean it out. So, the same with computers: you use it to do your email—or you use it to hack into the Internet!

[pause.]

We used to go to some seminars in Cambridge on the sort of the things that were happening there, which was interesting. And certainly, at that time, you thought of computers as something that needed mathematicians to do the programming. Well, that’s changed.

Abbate:

So anyone can do it now?

Hersom:

Well, I think so. Following the instructions. Follow the right instructions, and always back up everything! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Now, there is some good advice! [laughs.]

Hersom:

Yes.

Abbate:

Were there any memorable disasters when things weren’t backed up?

Hersom:

Probably! [laughs.]

Ed Hersom:

We had the odd flood.

Abbate:

Were the machines in the basement?

Ed Hersom:

No, no.

Hersom:

Ground floor.

Ed Hersom:

But the factory was built, during the war, on a bog. So when it rained, it flooded.

Abbate:

Did that damage the machines?

Ed Hersom:

No, fortunately. But the generators [inaudible]. Some machines flooded.

Abbate:

But it worked anyway?

Ed Hersom:

Yes.

Hersom:

Backing up the Rothamstead System 4 in the early days was a tremendous job! It took ages running it through onto the tapes: hours! This had to be done every week. Things improved over the years, but it was a very, very long job.

Abbate:

Were you your own system managers, in the sense that you were also taking care of the machines, and backing them up?

Hersom:

No, there were operators who were doing the actual physical work. I mean, you backed up anything you wanted onto your own tapes, but the whole system and everything was the responsibility of the operators. I mean, there were quite a lot of operators at one time: putting on tapes, taking off tapes, finding tapes—and there was paper tape as well.

Abbate:

Were they men or women? Or a mix?

Hersom:

Both. [pause.] It ran twenty-four hours a day, at one time; the first few years.

Abbate:

Probably it still does.

Hersom:

Well, no, it won’t be there now. People have their own.

Abbate:

Well, not that same machine! [laughs.]

Hersom:

[laughs.] No!

Abbate:

Well, thank you very much for talking with me.

Hersom:

All right.