My mother the computer programmer

My mother, Wendy Elizabeth Forward, was a computer programmer during the early 1960s in London before embarking upon overseas travel. She told me, when I was a child of about 11, that she had lived very near to the computer that she worked on, which was a big mainframe machine (she told me it filled a room) because she needed to be nearby even after normal office hours in case there was a problem with the machine (which ran 24 hours). I have discovered of course that computer programmers worked in shifts, so this is probably what she meant. It seems that programming language then was very mathematical (which would fit well with Mum’s qualifications) with everything written in code, though plain English programme language was coming in during that time. Most computer programmers in the early days were male, who were generally paid more then their female counterparts.

She read mathematics at Reading University, and graduated from there in July 1963 (her degree certificate says ‘Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Geography, resulting in a BSc Honours 3rd class). Her first job was in London, and she went travelling in 1966. After her marriage in South Africa to my father, she became a housewife and stepmother to my brothers. My younger sister and I were born, but later, when we were older (I was about 9 or 10 I think) she took up mathematics again and became a maths coach for children who were struggling with the subject at school. This she did to keep her brain active and also to earn some cash for our after school activities of music and ice-skating. She died young of a brain haemorrhage in February 1983 a week after her 41st birthday.

Two years ago I went in search of her computer programmer history and discovered the following: She was a programmer on the Leo III business computer from approximately September 1963 until about August 1966. The Leo was the first business computer in the world, invented during the early 1950s for the Lyons Teahouses (Leo stood for Lyons Electronic Office). See: for photos of Leo I, Leo II and Leo III. My mother worked in the Lyons main bureau computer at Hartree House, Queensway, London and there are some wonderful photos of the installation of this machine – by crane through the window! This machine was in use from 1962 – 1972.

My mother lived near to the computer, in Leinster Square, and then later she moved to Fitzjohn’s Avenue in Hampstead. I succeeded, via the Leo Computers Society, to get in touch with one of her former colleagues who confirmed that she had been a Leo programmer. Her colleague, Peter Byford, told me “We all had a great time at Leo although we worked long hours. We all got on well, your Mum was a nice lady, good programmer, sometimes worried more than most when things went wrong but an important part of our programming team. She would have worked on CLEO and intercede” (programming languages).

My mother’s first dog in Cape Town was called Cleopatra was a Great Dane, the runt of the litter (Cleo for short). We had always thought that Mum had named her for the Egyptian Queen (though we didn’t know why), however CLEO stands for ‘Clear Language for Expressing Orders’ and was the plain English programming language developed for Leo computers (but which ultimately lost out to other programming languages – see pages 164-165 ‘A Computer called Leo’, by Georgina Ferry). To me this just shows Mum’s quiet and ironical sense of humour that she named her dog after the programming language she used, especially as dogs are (hopefully) controlled by commands.

Leo Computers merged with English Electric in February 1963, in October 1964 EE bought out Lyon’s holdings and the computer company was renamed English Electric LEO Marconi, in 1967 it merged with ICT to form International Computing Limited (ICL). These first two events would have taken place while my mother worked for the company. ICL later lost out to IBM and the USA market and then the Japanese has predominated the computing world ever since.

I remember my mother’s reaction to the first Apple home computer that friends of ours acquired in the early 1980s. She so wanted a reason to justify the expense of acquiring one, but despite the fact that it could have helped with the household accounts, the accounts for her mathematics coaching and the weekly letters to her parents and sister, she resisted the urge to buy one as she saw it as a luxury and was very careful about saving money. I so wish that she had bought one, though she would not have had long to enjoy getting to grips with programming again because of her early death.

My mother was an inspiration to me in so many ways, although I only had her for 13 3/4 years. She would have been pleased with my achievements at the Open University (both as a student and member of staff), as I am proud of hers at Leo: what a great technology role model to have in my family.

Wendy and Cleo, 1968

Wendy and Cleo, 1968

Published as part of Ada Lovelace Day 2009: