Guest blog: Barbara Ainsworth – Monash Museum of Computing History, Faculty of Information Technology, Monash University

In August 1951, a diverse group of scientists gathered at the University of Sydney to attend the first Australian conference on automatic computing machines. About 200 people came to the conference. The conference attracted a range of people from different disciplines ranging from electrical engineers, physicists, statisticians and mathematicians. They were about to become part of a new discipline – computer science. There were only 16 women amongst the 200 or so people at the conference. Three of the women were on the organising committee. 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
All of these women were listed as unmarried and designated “Miss” in the attendance list compared to their male colleagues who simply had an initial and academic title if appropriate. The women were all government employees and subject to the rules which limited the appointment of married women to permanent positions in the Public Service. They also had a separate pay rate and generally received about a third less than a male employee in a similar position. Just before the August conference, the CSIRO had forced their most senior female researcher in Radiophysics to resign as she had failed to reveal that she was actually married. Ruby Payne-Scott1, a leading physicist and radio astronomer, resigned on 20 July 1951. She did attend the International Scientific Radio Union (URSI) conference in August 1952 at the University of Sydney but had a private address rather than CSIRO status. Ruby Payne-Scott never returned to radioastronomy studies. The number of professional women in the Division of Radiophysics declined about this period and Miss Margaret Adamson was the sole woman left in the professional ranks by 1952. This situation did not change until Miss G.D. (Diane) Castleman was employed in 1962 as an experimental officer in the new group entitled “Data Processing”. She worked with the Division throughout the 1960s and was a computer programmer.2
Selected staff group showing CSIRO Radiophysics Research Staff, professional level, 1952.

Selected staff group showing CSIRO Radiophysics Research Staff, professional level, 1952. 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.

The women drawn from CSIRO staff who attended the 1951 conference were:
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
The list shows 13 of the female participants were employed by the CSIRO and about half of them worked at the Division of Radiophysics. The Division had a mathematical computation group led by Trevor Pearcey which employed human computers, mainly women. They completed manual calculations and also assisted with work on the punched card equipment. In government employment classification terms, most of them were employed as ‘assistants’ although some had university qualifications and were attending classes. The group had developed from the mid-1940s when Pearcey had taken over. The staff grew from 1946 and there were 8-10 women and 2 men. Several women were employed with professional status during the 1940s but Margaret Adamson (who had a BA and BEd) was the lone female professional staff member in the mathematical group by the end of 1951. There is little reference to the women by name in the usual sources and their contributions to specific calculations for research were rarely acknowledged or in the footnotes at the end of published papers. This is especially true of the Assistant level staff. Their names do appear in the annual pay adjustment records and it gives some idea of their status compared to each other. While Margaret Adamson was paid 680 pounds per annum in 1951, the ‘assistants’ were paid between 219-263 pounds per year.3 There are some references to the women in the CSIRO Executive Minutes, such as being granted time to take mathematics classes at the University. The Division did let the permanent Assistants attend the conference but two married female computers, for whatever reason, did not. In fact, several of the staff were acknowledged in the Conference proceedings as members of the organising committee. Ross Blunden was in charge and was assisted by three women – Miss Power from SMI; Miss Cole and Miss M. Adamson from Radiophysics; other committee members were M. Allen and J.E. Todd from SMI.4
CSIRO Radiophysics general staff, 1952.

CSIRO Radiophysics general staff, 1952. The female computers were part of general staff.

Another CSIRO female professional staff member present was Helen Newton Turner who was then in the Section of Mathematical Statistics. Along with Betty Allan5 and M. Barnard, Helen Turner helped introduce the work of statisticians, or biometrics, into the CSIR/CSIRO. She became senior principal research scientist of CSIRO’s Division of Animal Genetics in 1956. She supervised the McMaster Laboratories in the Division. In the laboratory, Miss Turner had a staff of 6 female computers who used desk calculators. Trevor Pearcey transferred his punched card machinery, discussed in one of his papers for the conference, to her control at this laboratory in 1954.6 She is the only female recorded by name in the discussion notes in the Conference Proceedings.7
Helen Newton Turner (1908-1995)

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.

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)

There were two female staff from the NSW Dept of Agriculture. Elva Check had graduated from the University of Sydney in 1949 with a Bachelor of Science and worked at the Department as an Assistant Biometrician from 1950 until she married in 1955. Her family have established a commemorative scholarship in mathematics at the University of Sydney in her honour.8 Her fellow staff member, Miss Hemmant, completed her Bachelor of Science at the University of Western Australia in 1946 before moving to Sydney.9 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.

The dawn of Australia’s digital age will be celebrated at The Riding the Digital Wave Summit being held at the University of Sydney on 30 September 2021.

1 Ward, C. 2011 Ruby Payne-Scott (1912-1981) https://csiropedia.csiro.au/Payne-Scott-Ruby/

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.

4 CSIRO and Elec. Eng. Dept, University of Sydney, 1952 Proceedings of Conference on Automatic Computing, held in the Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Sydney, August 1951. Melbourne: CSIRO in conjunction with the Dept of Electrical Engineering, University of Sydney, August, 1951 p.209

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

7 CSIRO and Elec. Eng. Dept, University of Sydney, 1952, p.91

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.

Images

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/