The Grandmother of the Internet- A Tribute to Mary Lee Berners-Lee

We are often reassured that the future is female but so often we ignore just how much of the past was female as well. Throughout a whitewashed history, we are taught to celebrate the achievements of men in science fields but too often we ignore the women that also helped revolutionise the field, in more ways than one. Mary-Lee Berners-Lee née Woods might have a familiar surname, she titles herself, “The Grandmother of the Web,” for it was her son, Sir Tim Berners-Lee who would go on to invent the internet as we know it. Yet whilst his story is celebrated, it was Mrs Berners-Lee whose contribution is overlooked.
Born in Hall Green, Birmingham, Berners-Lee is perhaps the best thing to come out the Midlands until Kenny Baker, Nigel Mansell, Richard Hammond, and Peaky Blinders. Staying true to her routes, her alma mater was the University of Birmingham where she would start a compressed wartime degree in 1942- a “War Honours Degree”, completing two years of it before in 1944 she had to go to Farnborough to work at the Telecommunications Research Establishment for two years before returning to finish her final year of her degree in 1947.
On graduation, she would spend a few years on an Astrophysics Fellowship in Canberra, Australia. She described herself as, “fairly romantic,” at this age and Astrophysics is, “of course, a very romantic subject.” She would discover that astrophysics was not her calling, her job entailed Eddington’s Theory of the Internal Stars Constitution.
“The magnitude is the apparent brightness in the sky, ad that of course is affected by the distance away; and there’s the true luminosity, the radius, and the mass. But only two of those are independent, and if you can find those, you know the others, by the theory of how the internal constitution works, with the hydrogen being used up at centre of the stars to provide luminosity.” Her work was to classify stellar spectra that had been previously collected. She would later discover she was only given this job because, “no man would have the patience.”
After answering an advert in Nature appealing for Mathematicians to retrain as Computer Programmers, Berners-Lee would apply and end up working for Ferranti in Manchester after a two-day research period to actually find out what a Digital Computer actually was. Prior to her interview, the juxtaposition of Canberra, Australia to Manchester, a worse version of Birmingham, struck her, she remarked on how she thought to herself, “never, never, never will I live in this ugly place!” but as the interview would progress and by the time it was over, she knew that Manchester, Birmingham of the South, would be the place for her. “So I now know that happiness is not really in the beauty of where you live; it’s in other things.”
At Ferranti, she would go on to work the Ferranti Mark 1, the word’s first commercially available general-purpose electronic computer. Along with her husband, Conway Berners-Lee, they would go on to develop the Mark 1* which had a tidier interface. Part of her training would come from a manual written by Alan Turing. In her early years, developments from the Mark 1 were, as expected, riddled with faults and errors considering such a large operation with primitive technology. As a result, she was tasked with writing a diagnostic programme to print out content after every stage so diagnosis could take place away from the machine rather than programmers having to sit at the desk and watch for them as they would have had to do prior to her involvement.
Whilst she didn’t directly work on this side of the development, the Mark 1 would have one of the first and oldest computer games, a basic version of chess was programmed into it but that in itself wasn’t even able to hold a full game as only a mate-in-two problem could be implemented. The computer would scan every possible white and black move which would take around 15-20 minutes to examine but even this model didn’t allow for certain things such as castling, double pawn moves ergo en passant captures, pawn promotions and there was no distinction between checkmate and stalemate.
The complications of the Mark 1’s programming would cause disputes in the team between the engineers and mathematicians as the machine would be riddled with both programming and machine errors, and both groups were always keen to blame the others. The computer in itself would often misread the binary digits which the engineers assumed the mathematicians could solve by programming in arithmetic checks but the mathematicians- the pompous race that they are- would assume it was a machine error as opposed to a program error. At the heart of this rivalry was the innovation of Mary herself as she wrote a programme for inverting matrices to solve up to 40 simultaneous equations at once, which was then unthinkable. For those wondering when maths would ever be useful in life, these solutions would be prominent in the aeronautical industry as they’re used in structural dynamics which involves analysing the stress on structures such as beams, aircraft skins, and also for propulsion analysis in combustion simulations, heat flows, and temperature distributions as well as other things. Aircraft design was a key factor that this impacted upon.
The way the machine worked was in binary where cathode ray tubes would display the dots from the teleprinter tape as either ones or zeroes in blocks of five, the tape having five hold positions for each character. The five bits would in turn give you 32 possible patterns of noughts and ones allowing for 32 characters which was used up on the 26 letters and ‘/@:£½’ each given its own unique binary code. All the data was stored as binary numbers The machine had three registers, A, B, and C. A the accumulator where the answer was stored, C the control register which said where the next instruction would be located and B was used to hold numbers that were to be added to the instruction to modify it.
“As a simple example, if you are trying to total a column of figures, you have to pick up the first and put it in the accumulator; add the second one to it; and then pick up the next one and add that one to it. So you’ve got a little instruction which says, “Add into the accumulator first the number in Line 1, then the number in Line 2, then the number in Line 3.” And in the B-tube you could keep a counter, so what you actually said was, “Add line n into the accumulator”—where n is modified by a B-tube—“and then add one on to n, and then test to see if n has reached your maximum.”
Yet storage was an issue as now you can have a terabyte in your sky box but it was much more of a challenge as she detailed, “It was so difficult – making it fit the space, because there was so little storage, you had to be so careful. I mean nowadays, when you’ve got megabytes and gigabytes and goodness knows how many bytes, you can’t imagine what it was like when you’ve only got sixty-four 20-bit numbers, that is nothing, it’s nothing, and you have to be very careful.”
Berners-Lee wouldn’t stop fighting the good fight there as in 1952 whilst working at Ferranti, the women were horrified to discover that although there were, potentially, more women than men in the company at the time, the men were being better paid. It was argued that the men had families they needed to accommodate, a wife and kids to be supported yet that argument didn’t wash as the majority of them were not married or with family responsibilities so such a discrepancy was deemed, “most unjust.” This led to Mary being sent to the personnel department, despite her sticking true to her STEM background and not particularly backing herself as a public speaker, she herself professed, “I really am not very good at legal arguments [and I] didn’t know quite what to say,” with some assistance from her friend, Bernard Swann, on how to present her case, she would take it forward to the personnel department and she would indeed immediately succeed in gaining a pay raise for her team of women in line with the principle of equal pay to men.
The fight for women’s rights didn’t end there as with time going on, the computer at the university would gain more use as years went by meaning Ferranti’s hours of use would be restricted. Firstly, they were given only evening access and then later it would be ruled that Ferranti would only have access between midnight and eight. A further embargo was thrown in when the Personnel Department decided that women shouldn’t be in there at night, to the joy of the male staff who would now get it all to themselves. This plan would be, in layman’s terms, totally ignored by the women on the staff, choosing to make full use of their evening access to the machine despite a rule trying to prevent them working after 10. At one point a chaperone was even suggested for them, and a tea lady, a suggestion that was categorically rejected.
After the birth of her first child, Tim who would become the Father of the Internet and be knighted for his works, Mary-Lee would leave Ferranti and take up smaller projects at home including some work for the London Transport Authority where she would programme simulations of bus routes to limit the concertina effect of congestion and traffic problems. She would also develop programmes to track weather balloons for finding readings and translating their findings as well as tracking their whereabouts. This would require new forms of programming to be learnt despite her retirement. She would go on to teaching Maths and then familiarised herself with FORTRAN, a popular language for high performing computing which is still used today in programmes including those that are used to rank the world’s fastest computers. She would also go onto working at K&H, a firm primarily concerned with critical path analysis.
Mary would pass away on the 27th November 2017 at the grand old age of 93, survived by her husband Conway who she met at Ferranti and, in true power couple style, worked with him.
Mary-Lee Berners-Lee’s legacy will probably be best known as the Grandmother of the Web, but her contribution to the fields of Maths and Engineering were crucial in the development of the field. Of her four children, three went into Computing, Tim, Pete, and Helen- Michael being the one that didn’t- and it is a career she encourages for women in present day, leaving the sage advice of simply, “enjoy it.”

A link to a fuller interview with Mary Lee conducted in 2001 can he found here whilst various audio clips of her from 2010 can be found here

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