Ferranti’s Woman for Ada Lovelace Day

She says that she didn’t have much to do with the formation of I. P. Sharp Associates back in 1964.  She was pregnant, after all, and planning to “retire.”  I didn’t actually believe this because I always remember her being a programmer there.  And besides, behind every one of our big stars, there is a whole legion of folks who do more than their part.

And then I read the proof.   An article co-written by Audrey P. M. Williams, Time-Sharing on the Ferranti-Packard FP6000 Computer System in 1963[1]. This article is a clear “how-to” get many computer programs sharing one computer, step one to getting many people using one computer.  The computer is the Ferranti-Packard’s FP6000, another Canadian contribution to computer history that even the CBC knows about. 

The article is written in great technical detail.  At the time, magnetic tape was an innovation for storing information and you really did need to understand what “one character every 15 microseconds” really, truly, deeply means to make a computer do anything.

What I mean by saying this is that you needed to know math.

Audrey’s father convinced her to study Mathematics because it was “more suitable for a girl”  after she decided at age nine that she wanted to be an Engineer.  As she was born in Liverpool, England on July 3, 1934, I guess this was a legitimate fatherly concern.  Incidentally, Audrey is still in touch with her girlhood math teacher, Enid Briggs, from the Merchant Taylors’ School for Girls.  Miss Briggs is now 98. Wow!

Audrey writes about the first time she saw a computer in her memoirs:

I had seen my first computer at the Festival of Britian in 1951.  A single-purpose machine was set up to play the game of Nim against a human.  I had been intrigued.

Audrey on Ferranti's Pegasus

Audrey’s math degree from Bedford College, University of London lead to a programming job at Ferranti Ltd. in London and her subsequent transfer to Canada.

Ms Williams, a programmer at Ferranti-Packard in Toronto, later married Ian Sharp, took his surname, and voila, Audrey P. M. Sharp.  Our Audrey!

[1] M.J. Marcotty, F.M. Longstaff and Audrey Williams, “Time Sharing on the Ferranti-Packard FP6000 Computer System”, Proceeding – Spring Joint Computer Conference, 1963, of the American Federation of Information Processing Society, pp. 29-40.
This post is part of an international celebration of women in science and technology in honour of Ada Lovelace Day.

Some Bread Crumbs

Roger Moore was later to write an ALGOL60 compiler for Ferranti-Packard’s FP6000.  This is one of the winding tendrils that connects us to John Backus, a designer of ALGOL and the father of FORTRAN.

Roger, Ian Sharp and some others went on to create I. P. Sharp Associates (IPSA) while Audrey raised the kids.  The historical financial data that IPSA collected on its time-sharing APL system is alive and well today and is still available from Reuters, as far as I know. 

And all of this information (except maybe the bit about Reuters) is available on Wikipedia.  Bless cyberspace.


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