Oral history of British science

Shirley, Stephanie (Part 5 of 15). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Subjects

    Computer Software

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  • Recording locations

    Interviewee's home, Henley-on-Thames

  • Interviewees

    Shirley, Stephanie, 1933- (speaker, female)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 5: Remarks on move to London to find work: living in mother's house in Colindale, which they rented out to lodgers, one of whom helped SS get interviews at GEC Wembley and Post Office Research Establishment Dollis Hill. Comments on Dollis Hill: interview; attraction of its stability and prospect of further training; dour boss, Edrick Thompson [ET]. [04:35] Comments on work at Dollis Hill: desk calculators, doing methodical calculations, importance of neatness, formalities of working environment, generous holidays, worked hard. [08:51] Description of Dollis Hill building and motto: 'Research is the door to tomorrow.' Further Comments on working at Dollis Hill: lots of scientific activity, large graduate staff, majority of women clerical staff, [pause] different grades of staff canteen, individual towels, SS wearing a lab coat, very structured environment, unfairness of different salary grades for men and women. [14:24] Comments on position of women in 1950s society: fear of attack by men, protective of honour, pioneering by going into a male working environment. Story about getting an experimental officer position despite no support from boss ET. Remarks on jobs done on desk calculators: calculations for transatlantic telephone cable, statistics, wave guides, SS interest in knowing what calculations were for, considering herself below graduates, such as a H.J. Josephs, until she developed her own knowledge. [20:35] Remarks on discussions about maths, realising she wasn't going to contribute to maths research. Story about running statistical calculations on variations in Post office string to prosecute a mail thief. Remarks on working customers from establishment, such as Dr Jarvis, developing knowledge of mathematics to offer own solutions to problems. [24:35] Limited training at start. [Remarks on discipline of tidying desk for security reasons. Anecdote about first walking into canteen full of men. Remarks on stresses and challenges of being a women in a male dominated workplace and discrimination. [28:09] Story about getting her degree, applying for a scientific officer position, male interviewers refusing to serve on her interview panel, interview questions on analogue and digital computing. [30:50] Comments on transfer to Tommy Flowers’ division concerned with computing and telecoms: doing technical writing on JERC - Joint Electronic Research Council telephone exchange; checking randomness of ERNIE - Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, the premium bond random number generator. [33:45] Comments on using Ferranti Pegasus at Portland Place after earlier experience with HEC4 computer: worries over program working in limited and expensive computer time available; efficiency of programming in small memory; description of computer centre; feeling sophisticated for being involved with computers. [37:40] Remarks on learning to program, HEC4 experience, realising computer could do the 'donkey work.' Remarks on: her name appearing on ERNIE reports, but work was classified so she couldn't read report; stimulating work environment; hostile attitudes to women in workplace, learning what sort of boss she wanted to be. Remarks on ERNIE group: SS only woman but colleagues civilised, engineers, like Harry Fensom, rather than mathematicians. [42:06] Remarks on discrimination and lack of diversity in workplaces, domestic violence toward women, informing her husband that she would leave him if it happened to her, feeling threatened when working late at night in Dollis Hill, being assigned work on tensors to break her. [46:00] Remarks on: becoming founder member of British Computer Society [BCS], only being allowed to be a student member due to age, not being allowed to go to conference; using HEC4; taking option to resign on marriage. Story about having to claim she was married to use a Marie Stopes clinic. [50:00] Comments on husband Derek Shirley [DS]: married in 1959, shy, wave-guides expert, worked in different Dollis Hill laboratory, graduate of institute of physics through evening classes, not first boyfriend, nice voice, clever, reassuring, reasons for six year courtship. [53:38] Remarks on dislike of dates, getting to know each other on camping holidays, start of their relationship, surprise of colleagues. Description of herself at this time: self-willed, attractive, vulnerable, high flyer, one off. Comments on Tommy Flowers: gentleman, listened to people, formal, team-leader, not highly honoured for work at Bletchley Park. [1:00:11] Remarks on concentration on current problems rather than past successes. Anecdote about carrying her own mechanical calculator rather than asking for help. Remarks about: pressures about being first women to do a job, such as President of BCS and on board of Tandem Computers; feeling privileged to work in leading edge work at Dollis Hill, but not realising it at the time; finding projects conceptually interesting, such as transatlantic telephone cable. [1:04:27] Story about being introduced to live opera, courtesy of spare tickers to Convent Garden Opera from an external customer. Remarks on clubs at Dollis Hill: ballroom dancing; getting to meet people through serving coffee; drama group, which included a Dr Coombs whose shell shock stutter vanished when he acted. Remarks on Dr Lewis explaining importance of tasks. Comments on lunch and changing social circle as she got promoted.

  • Description

    Interview with entrepreneur, computer scientist and philanthropist Dame Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley.

  • Related transcripts

    Dame Stephanie Shirley interviewed by Thomas Lean: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

    Visit this interviewee's page on the 'Voices of Science' web resource

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