Four women share stories from UK computing’s early days

Thursday, September 5, 2013 | 9:44 AM

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So far, with rare exception, the focus of our computing history series has been on technology—the machines that broke new ground and the people behind them.

This time we’re approaching it from a different angle, with the release of short films highlighting the stories of four women. By luck or design, all found themselves working at the forefront of the UK’s computing industry in its earliest stages, and it was fascinating to hear their diverse experiences.

In three clips from past interviews, Joyce Wheeler and Margaret Marrs talk about their time using EDSAC at Cambridge, and Mary Coombs tells of programming LEO, the world’s first business computer. And in a fourth brand new film, Dame Stephanie Shirley shares her extraordinary tale of founding Freelance Programmers, one of the UK’s first software startups.





Launched in 1962, Freelance Programmers wasn’t the UK’s first independent software company—that honour goes to Vaughan Programming Services founded by another pioneering woman, Dina St Johnston, in 1959.

What made Dame Stephanie’s company stand out however was its unusual business model, dedicated to employing women programmers working part-time from home. In an era when women were routinely expected to leave the workforce upon marriage, this was a bold move. Against all odds, Dame Stephanie—or “Steve” as she signed her business letters—dramatically overcame the glass ceiling by sidestepping it, bringing many others in her wake.

Few entrepreneurs have been as successful as Dame Stephanie; even fewer have done as much to champion the cause of women in computing. We’re delighted to share her inspirational story.

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