Kathleen Booth obituary | Computing
In the late 1940s there were three well-funded computer groups in the UK: at the University of Manchester, the University of Cambridge and the National Physical Laboratory. Kathleen Britten (later Booth), who died aged 100, was a research assistant in a fourth group, working at Birkbeck College, University of London. With tiny funding, this group built a computer whose design served as the basis for the best-selling British computer of its time.
The computing group was part of the Birkbeck Crystallography Group established after World War II by JD Bernal, one of the most influential scientists of his generation, and was headed by Andrew Booth, whom Kathleen would marry in 1950.
They had developed much closer ties with American computer projects than with those in Britain. In 1946, Bernal had helped Andrew obtain a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to visit the computing project headed by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Von Neumann was one of the main inventors of the modern electronic computer. Andrew made a subsequent six-month visit from March to September 1947, this time accompanied by Kathleen.
There they split their time, with Andrew studying computer design and Kathleen programming, with the aim of building a machine called the Automatic Relay Calculator (ARC). Upon their return to Britain, work began on the ARC, which was physically built primarily by Kathleen and a colleague, Xenia Sweeting.
According to Kathleen, the machine first worked on May 12, 1948, making it the first example of the new type of “stored program” computer to work, although it was not electronic and was built in using electromechanical relays rather than vacuum tubes.
The ARC was soon replaced by a faster electronic version, the Simple Electronic Computer (SEC), and that in turn by the APE(X)C – the All Purpose Electronic X-ray Computer. The machine was about to work when it was described in the Booths’ jointly-authored book, Automatic Digital Computers, published in 1953.
The British Tabulating Machine Company (later ICL), which had provided financial support to the computer group, adopted his design for a commercial data-processing computer. The machine was first sold in 1954 as the HEC (Hollerith Electronic Computer). Later renamed the 1200 series of computers, over a hundred were sold to various companies, making it the best-selling computer in the UK during the 1950s.
Born in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, Kathleen was the only daughter and middle child of three to Gladys (née Kitchen) and Frederick Britten, a tax inspector. She was educated at King Edward IV Girls’ High School in Birmingham and later studied Maths at Royal Holloway College, University of London. After graduating in 1944, she spent two years as a junior science officer at RAE (Royal Aircraft Establishment) Farnborough, working on aerodynamics.
In 1946 she became a research scientist with the British Rubber Producers Research Association, which had also funded Andrew’s doctorate in X-ray crystallography, and continued to support his computational research. The year of their marriage, Kathleen obtained a doctorate in applied mathematics. Two years later, she joined the staff of Bernal’s crystallography group at Birkbeck College.
The Birkbeck Computer Group had also been partially funded by the Rockefeller Foundation for research into machine translation of natural language. To fulfill this obligation, Kathleen wrote a translation program, first demonstrated in 1955, by translating a passage from French to English. Subsequently, the college became a leading center for natural language translation. In 1958 Kathleen wrote an early textbook, Programming for an Automatic Digital Computer, and began research in neural networks, studying the ways animals recognize patterns, and applied it to optical character recognition. .
In 1962 the Booths decided to abandon Birkbeck. According to Andrew, this was due to the college’s refusal to accept an offer from the British Tabulating Machine Company to endow a chair in computer engineering. Disenchanted with what he described as Britain’s “socialist mediocrity”, the couple took up posts at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, where Kathleen undertook research into machine translation and communication networks. neurons. She also became an advocate for women in science and engineering.
In 1972, the Booths moved to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where Kathleen became an honorary professor at Lakeland University. Six years later, they retired to Vancouver Island, but maintained their ties to computing by establishing a consulting firm, Autonetics Research Associates.
Since 2015, what is now Birkbeck, the University of London has organized the annual Andrew and Kathleen Booth Memorial Lecture in Computing.
Andrew passed away in 2009. Kathleen is survived by their two children, Ian and Amanda.