Memory Line: A history of British computing

Production still from Memory Line

On 6 May 1949, a team of engineers led by Sir Maurice Wilkes at the University of Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory ran the first programme on a new digital computer. It was called the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC). EDSAC was the first computer to include retrievable, programmable memory. Pulsing vibrations through tanks of liquid mercury, the computer’s memory was literally made of soundwaves. 

The formal history of EDSAC has been extensively documented by computer historian Martin Campbell-Kelly.1Campbell-Kelly, M., Aspray, W., Yost, J.R., Ensmenger, N., 2014. Computer: A History of the Information Machine, 3rd ed, The Sloan technology series. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado In addition, a group of retired computer engineers are working on building a fully functioning reconstruction of EDSAC at The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) at Bletchley Park in the UK. Across the UK, spare rooms, garden sheds, attics and kitchen tables have been converted into project and prototype laboratories as the team build a machine which is the size of a whole room from their respective homes. 

Memory Line is a multimedia artwork reflecting on the techniques used for memory storage during those early days of digital computing. It listens to the testimonies of those who experienced the first programmable memory machine.

As a sound artist, the outputs of my work are aesthetically driven. However, the core of much of my work is an interest in dialogue, testimonial and preservation. As such, the work also included the production of an oral history archive in collaboration with the Museum and the EDSAC Charitable Trust. 

Traversing the field of art and oral history is a challenge for many artists interested in social engagement and history. Often the artist is a form of archival explorer, sifting through the archives of existing documentation in order to tease out new dimensions and perspectives that situate the material in the present. At times, the artist may also be the producer of the documentation. They find themselves in a balancing act between useful oral history material and artwork. In the production of this work, I was interested in forming narrative threads between interviews that would situate the historical significance of the EDSAC machine within the current social context (particularly issues around women in STEM industries).

Memory Line engages with the memory storage system it deployed as well as the people who built, worked and reconstructed the EDSAC machine, and the culture they worked within as early computing pioneers. Sound artist Cathy Lane has claimed that sound artists often “avoid working with the voice”, leaving this work to ethnographers and oral historians.2Lane, C., 2017. Listening and Not Listening to Voices. SEISMOGRAF. She asks sound artists to “hear beneath the surfaces of the visible” and to ask “whose voice am I not listening to?” Memory Line responds to this call by contextualising the voices of ten retired computer engineers, and in particular, three women who worked on the original EDSAC machine.

The work offers a counter-narrative to a computing history dominated by the men who have been celebrated as fundamental in the industry (such as Eckert, Turing, von Neumann, and Wilkes). I encouraged the interviewees to reflect on their earliest memories and their memories of working both with and as women in the early years of the industry.

There is a growing acknowledgement of the important role of women in computing history, beginning with Ada Lovelace. Research by Jennifer Light3Light, J.S., 1999. When Computers Were Women. Technology and Culture 40, 455–483. and David Alan Grier4Grier, D.A., 2007. When Computers Were Human. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. gives particular presence to human ‘computers’. This was the term used to describe a pool of (typically) women, tasked with providing complex mathematical calculations for astronomy, ballistics, and eventually computer programming in the development of the ENIAC and UNIVAC computers in the US. 

The issue has been brought to particular public attention through the book (and subsequent movie) Hidden Figures by Margot Lee-Shetterly. It traces the stories of three African American women (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson) employed as computers within NASA. Along with their colleagues, these women played a crucial role in providing calculations during the Space Race. 

This field of research has also extended into what historian Mar Hicks describes as the ‘programmed inequality’ of women in computing in the UK.5Hicks, M., 2017. Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost its Edge in Computing, MIT Press Series in the History of Computing. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. The stories of the women recorded for Memory Line and the stories recorded in the histories of computing describe an environment determined by structural inequalities. 

I travelled across the country with my colleague Bella Riza to interview women and men who worked in the early days of computing. Bella’s role as cinematographer was vital in the media production. It also gave our two person team a gender balance and sensitivity which was crucial during long afternoons of drinking tea and chatting with our interviewees, some of whom were vulnerable, elderly women living on their own. Each interviewee is connected to EDSAC, but we met within the intimacy of their homes, their workspaces and living rooms. 

As we conducted the interviews I found that, as the ethnographer Sarah Pink has said, “interviews are not only places where researchers learn about other people’s experiences, but where interviewees might arrive at new levels of awareness about their own lives and experiences”.6Pink, S., 2015. Doing Sensory Ethnography, 2nd ed. Sage Publications, London, UK ; Thousand Oaks, CA. Listening to their stories, I thought about how the computer’s ability to store memory was as fragile as our human capacity to recollect a lifetime of experiences. It is important to record these voices, to remember a time before computers had become ubiquitous, and to remember the patriarchal conditions into which digital computers were born.

The testimonials forming Memory Line are the basis of understanding not just what it is for women to work in computing, but what opportunities young men had/have in contrast to young women based on their gender, and the challenges women face to break into tech industries.

Memory Line is a film, multimedia artwork, and oral history project created by the artist Matt Parker with support from Arts Council England, The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park and the EDSAC Replica Project charitable trust.

Images by Matt Parker, copyright control of the author

Footnotes

  • 1
    Campbell-Kelly, M., Aspray, W., Yost, J.R., Ensmenger, N., 2014. Computer: A History of the Information Machine, 3rd ed, The Sloan technology series. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado
  • 2
    Lane, C., 2017. Listening and Not Listening to Voices. SEISMOGRAF.
  • 3
    Light, J.S., 1999. When Computers Were Women. Technology and Culture 40, 455–483.
  • 4
    Grier, D.A., 2007. When Computers Were Human. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  • 5
    Hicks, M., 2017. Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost its Edge in Computing, MIT Press Series in the History of Computing. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • 6
    Pink, S., 2015. Doing Sensory Ethnography, 2nd ed. Sage Publications, London, UK ; Thousand Oaks, CA.

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