Guest blog: Barbara Ainsworth – Monash Museum of Computing History, Faculty of Information Technology, Monash University
We can get some insight into the background of these women as the conference proceedings listed the attendees by name with their institution, and all female attendees were highlighted by including their marital status.
Organisation and number of women
- CSIRO Division of Radiophysics =6
- CSIRO Division of Physics = 1
- CSIRO Food Preservation = 2
- CSIRO Radio Research Board = 2
- CSIRO Section of Mathematical Instruments =1
- CSIRO Section of Mathematical Statistics = 1
- LWRE South Australia = 1
- NSW Dept of Agriculture = 2
|Adamson, M.A. Miss||CSIRO Division of Radiophysics|
|Ayres, M. T. Miss||CSIRO Division of Radiophysics|
|Darnell, L. Miss||CSIRO Division of Radiophysics|
|McSwiggan, J. Miss||CSIRO Division of Radiophysics|
|Madsen, M. Miss||CSIRO Division of Radiophysics|
|O’Dwyer, M. Miss||CSIRO Division of Radiophysics|
|Cole, D. Miss||CSIRO Radio Research Board|
|Hardwick, B. Miss||CSIRO Radio Research Board|
|Adamson, B. Miss||CSIRO Food Preservation|
|Cullip, M. Miss||CSIRO Food Preservation|
|Power, D.B. Miss||CSIRO Section of Mathematical Instruments|
|Turner, H.N. Miss||CSIRO Section of Mathematical Statistics|
|Ward, J.Y. Miss||CSIRO Division of Physics|
Women at the 1951 conference from other organisations.
Check, E. Miss
NSW Dept of Agriculture
Hemmant, N.L. Miss
NSW Dept of Agriculture
Whitehead, M. Miss
LWRE, South Australia (Federal Govt. -Dept of Supply)
Mary Whitehead10 and four male staff from the Long-Range Weapons Establishment (LRWE) came to discuss their increasing computing requirements. The rocket project in South Australia, with tests at Woomera, required copious amounts of computation which was handled by a large team of female computers. The female computers were based at Salisbury, SA and also occasionally went to Woomera. Mary Whitehead had completed a BA specialising in mathematics at the University of Melbourne in 1937 and was in charge of this group from 1949. She held Professional status. The LWRE (later Weapons Research Establishment) realised that manual calculations were not efficient. WRE installed a computer designated WREDAC (WRE Digital Automatic Computer) in 1955-1956 and the female staff adapted to using the new digital equipment as well as specialised analog equipment. The WRE staff organised their own conference in 1957 in South Australia.
There were only 16 women at the 1951 Conference on Automatic Computing Machines but their presence acknowledges the beginning of the recognition of the contribution of women to computing. The CSIRO and the WRE had large numbers of female computers. The CSIRO sent most of their team from the mathematics group in Radiophysics to the conference. Both Helen Newton Turner and Mary Whitehead went on to have long careers and held senior positions. For many women, it was difficult to advance in scientific circles as marriage was a bar to permanent employment in the Public Service until the mid-1960s. Although these human computers were undertaking complex mathematical work, it was given little acknowledgement and often their names were hidden in footnotes. It is very difficult to find out what these women did after the conference. The digital age would open up new opportunities for female mathematics graduates but these women were already there.
1 Ward, C. 2011 Ruby Payne-Scott (1912-1981) https://csiropedia.csiro.au/Payne-Scott-Ruby/
2 CSIRO Annual Report 1961-1962 p.132 https://csiropedia.csiro.au/csiro-annual-reports-1916-2000/
3 See Ruby Payne-Scott Staff file, CSIRO NAA: PH/Pay/002 which includes pages of Division of Radiophysics remunerations and increments for staff by year.
5 Doug McCann, ‘Turner, Helen Alma (1908–1995)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/turner-helen-alma-29660/text36636, published online 2020, accessed online 10 December 2020. Ward, C. 2011 Frances Elizabeth (Betty) Allan (1905-1952) https://csiropedia.csiro.au/allan-frances-elizabeth/ also see Ward, C. 2011 Edmund Alfred Cornish (1909-1973) https://csiropedia.csiro.au/cornish-edmund-alfred/ for discussion on statistics at CSIR/CSIRO
6 Pearcey, T. A History of Australian Computing. Caulfield. 1988 p.23
8 University of Sydney, NEWS “Mother’s Day gifts in memory of three remarkable women – In memory of a mathematical mum” 1 May 2018, https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2018/05/01/mother-s-day-gifts-in-memory-of-three-remarkable-women.html
9 The West Australian, 25 Feb 1946 p. 6 Personal. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/50327440
10 Dougherty, K. “The Original Computers. An Interview with Mary Whitehead”. Prospero, The Journal of British Rocketry and Nuclear History. Proceedings from the British Rocketry Oral History Programme Conferences at Charterhouse. Spring 2004.
Image 1: Selected staff group showing CSIRO Radiophysics Research Staff, professional level, 1952.
Source: Museums Victoria MM 90899.122) note Miss M.A. Adamson on right, only female in this group by 1952. Trevor Pearcey is standing in the second row under the central window panel.
Image 2: CSIRO Radiophysics general staff, 1952. The female computers were part of general staff.
Source: Museums Victoria MM 90899.123
Image 3: Helen Newton Turner (1908-1995) working in the Mathematics and Statistics Section, McMaster Laboratories. Note the calculator in the left-hand corner. Helen Newton Turner was a leading authority on sheep genetics.
Source CSIRO ScienceImage 2084 https://www.scienceimage.csiro.au/image/2084/