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Oral-History:Lucy Slater

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About Lucy Slater

Over her prestigious career, Lucy Slater earned multiple degrees, including two Ph.Ds., one from University of London and another from Cambridge. She began her career as a mathematician who worked on Hypergeometric functions. Her second main contribution to the field of mathematics was advancing generalizations of the Roger-Ramujan Identities. She used early versions of computers for this work and along with a coalition of other scholars developed early computer operation systems. As computers advanced, she helped to build the early econometric computer programs. Throughout her career she continued to focus on economic theories and computers, often in conjunction with the British government. When she retired, she focused her energy on studying the genealogy of her family and surrounding Cambridge area. Slater died in 2008.

In this interview she talks about her life living through World War I and World War II. Along the way she played piano for famous jazz musicians, worked on the first computers, and was associated with a team that won the Nobel Prize. She goes into detail about her early education, training anti-aircraft gunners during WWII, and how computers have changed over life.

About the Interview

LUCY SLATER: An interview conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, April 9, 2001.

Interview #630 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Lucy Slater: an oral history conducted in 2012 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Lucy Slater
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: April 9, 2001
PLACE: Lucy Slater’s house in Cambridge, U.K.

Family

Abbate:

I’d like to start with your background. What year were you born?

Lucy Slater:

1922.

Abbate:

Where did you grow up?

Slater:

I was born in Parkstone. If you were English, you would immediately say, “Oh, but you haven’t got a Parkstone accent!” Parkstone is near Bournemouth, on the borders of Dorset; and people who are very well up in accents say, “Oh, but you’ve got a Dorset ‘r’”—which I have, in my accent. My parents were both from Lancashire, my father from the High Moors of Saddleworth and my mother from down in Manchester, so between the two of them I’ve got a somewhat Lancashire accent—which foxes the people who know about these things, because it’s neither High Moor nor Manchester.

Abbate:

What did your parents do for a living?

Slater:

Well, they were both very early graduates of Manchester University, before the First War. My mother was a suffragette! She was all for women’s rights, and she worked with Ellen Wilkinson, who became the first female Cabinet Minister. In the First World War she was a school teacher, and my father went to work for the Admiralty. He was a qualified chemist; when the war broke out he’d just qualified in chemistry, and he had particular interest in nitroglycerine, explosives in general, and gun cotton. He’d been born into a cotton family in Lancashire, so he knew quite a lot about cotton; it was just making it into gun cotton that was his job. So he spent the war doing that, and they got married in 1916.

Are you interested in the story of how they came together?

Abbate:

Sure.

Slater:

It involves suffragettes. My mother was in a riot in Whitworth Hall (part of Manchester University) about 1914. She emptied a utensil on the head of a policeman—she never did tell me what was in the utensil; I’ll leave that to your imagination!—and she got hauled up before the magistrate. Suffragettes weren’t allowed to do anything except give their name and their address, so she was quiet; she wouldn’t say a word. The magistrate, knowing this, turned in desperation to the court and said, “There’s nothing known against the young lady. Would anybody go surety of five pounds for her, on condition she doesn’t offend again?” My father hadn’t got five pounds, but he says, “Oh yes, I’ll go surety!” And the magistrate says, “What’s your connection with the young woman?” My father was a very quiet sort of a man and not given to pushing himself forward, but he got all his courage up, and he says, “I’m her fiancé!” [laughs.]

Abbate:

Did he even know her?

Slater:

Oh, he knew her: they’d been traveling down from Oldham in Lancashire to Manchester University on the train for three years, so they knew one another—but she didn’t know that he was her fiancé! [laughs.] His cousin W.K. Slater, who was in the court as well, even lent him five pounds to pay the surety. Then they got outside the court, where they could speak, and she exploded: “It’s news to me that I’m your fiancée! Where did you get an idea like that from?” She had Irish blood in her, Liverpool Irish! [laughs.] Anyway, she didn’t object too strongly, and a couple of years later, in 1916, they were married.

Abbate:

What a great story!

Slater:

Yes, it’s worth telling. Suffragettes have a lot to answer for! [laughs.]

They never really got together until after the war was over, because he’s working in London and she’s working in Lancashire; so the marriage wasn’t consummated until about 1919 or ‘20, when he could take her with him. She had a short trip to London for her honeymoon, in 1916—during which there was a Zeppelin raid, which rather put her off, so she went back to her teaching! [laughs.] They watched the victory parade in 1919 from the Admiralty offices in Whitehall.

Then he got a job then as a chemist at Holton Heath, which was near Bournemouth—well, near Wareham, I suppose; that’s the nearest town—and that was the place where they tested all the explosives that were supplied to the Admiralty. He got promoted in 1927. When I was five years old, he was moved to Portsmouth dockyard as the Admiralty chemist, and he was then a civilian officer in the Navy. He was quite a prominent chemist: he had an F.R. I.C.—Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry. My mother got a good degree at Manchester, and she went on writing her thesis in between teaching, and became an M.A. in Manchester—despite her suffragette activities! So they were both well-qualified academics, you can say, as their social class.

Abbate:

What were her degrees in?

Slater:

Latin and Greek. She wrote a thesis on Hesiod’s Works and Days and Virgil’s Georgics.

My father’s chief subject was these explosives. He was interested in determination of hydrogen ions, at a time when that was a very secret sort of thing to be doing; I think it was probably preliminary to something to do with making hydrogen explode, though he wasn’t an atomic scientist. Also he wrote papers that were published about anti-barnacle paint on battleships; and he did work in Portsmouth with Fisher on submarine escape apparatus. To escape from submarines, you have to have to have the right mix of air to breathe; you can’t have pure oxygen or pure whatever, but have to have the right air mix—and as he was a very strong swimmer and a good scientist, he was trying it out on himself!

When I was a little girl, about six or seven years old, my mother had hurt her leg, so he was faced with the job of looking after me while she had this leg treated. She had a poorly leg, anyhow; she had had polio, I think, as a child, and one leg didn’t work very well all her life. So he had this job of looking after me, and he was doing one of these tests in a submarine—I think it was the X1; it was a submarine that was geared up to be a research submarine, for people to escape with different types of gas in their masks—so he took me with him on the submarine! I was put in charge of a man who said he was not a sailor, he was a ‘matelot.’ They are not sailors but matelots on submarines.

Abbate:

They are what?

Slater:

Matelots—it’s a French word for ‘sailor.’ And he got some ice cream from somewhere, so he kept me quiet, all right! He called a submarine a ship; you’re used to calling them boats in the U.S. for some reason. It sailed out from Haslar, near Portsmouth, where it was based, into the Spithead, and did a dive. I don’t know whether my father got out or what he was doing, but anyway, the next time I saw him he was still properly dressed: so perhaps he had undressed and done a dive and then come back up, or perhaps he was just supervising the men who were doing it. But they were letting out people from the submarine to the surface, and then they were being picked up by a boat, and put back on the submarine. Then we went back to Portsmouth. I had all the ice cream and was thoroughly contented—but I shouldn’t have been there; it was quite illegal, as far as Navy regulations go! [laughs.] Quite recently I was in Portsmouth on Red Nose Day , and I found, watching a destroyer coming in, that they’d got a large red balloon on their front gun, for Red Nose Day! I thought that was a nice touch. That was the old Navy that I’d known, that bent rules where necessary! [laughs.]

Death of Father and Home Schooling

Abbate:

Were you interested in science or maths as a young girl?

Slater:

Well, a tragic thing happened in 1931: my father died. He literally dropped dead. He was a very strong, physically fit man. They checked him very carefully before they let him do any dives; the navy were very particular about employing people if they weren’t fit, and he was in charge of this laboratory, which is still there in Portsmouth dockyard, near the old fire station. He was apparently fit. He went ballroom dancing. It was his hobby in the evenings: after he’d done his day’s work, he came home, had his tea, dressed in his evening suit, and went off to South Parade Pier, where there was a ballroom dancing competition. He had a very nice partner; she was the daughter of an admiral, and she was called Miss Coates. She was dressed in one of these big fancy frocks, and I used to think, “Oh, I’d love to be a ballroom dancer, dressed up like that!” I was a little girl of nine.

They had got in the semifinals, and they were dancing in the semifinals that night. All of a sudden he stumbled, and she said to him, “Oh, you’ve blown it, Jack!”—meaning that you couldn’t stumble in that standard of ballroom dancing. (They always called him Jack, although his name was John.) He was leaning against her, and she dragged him to the side; he was unconscious, and of course they suspended the dance. A doctor came and said, “Send for an ambulance, quick!” which they did. Of course they weren’t as quick as they are today, and he was dead on arrival at hospital.

So you can imagine what my mother felt. One minute she’s got a good income coming in—because his was a highly paid job for those days—and a healthy husband, and the next minute she’s a widow with a daughter to support, and no pensions. The Navy must have had a bit of a bad feeling about the way he died—perhaps he’d got a nitrogen bubble in his blood; this is a suggestion one of my uncles made. Nobody sued anybody, but my mother got a payment of two thousand pounds, without prejudice, to give her something to live on. The Masonic Order comes into this; he was in the Royal Arch chapter, and a very prominent mason, so perhaps they also had a finger in the pie. But anyhow, she got two thousand pounds, which was untold wealth in 1931; and we were helped in all sorts of ways by unexpected people: to find a house that was being rented cheap, and to find a job for her. She went back to teaching in the Girls’ Grammar School at Portsmouth, and one way and another she got by. But I do feel there was a lot help, both from the naval authorities and the Masons—looking back on it, now.

I just went to school. She taught me at first; I had never been to school at all until my father died, because she was a fully qualified teacher, and she just taught me. That consisted of letting me loose with all the books in the house, and there were a lot of books. It was the maths books that I turned to. Those old books, I really read the spots off them! I don’t know why I turned to maths books. My father was trained under Professor Horace Lamb at Manchester, so he was a good mathematician; so was my mother; and one of my uncles was a statistician—so perhaps there was figuring in the family; I don’t know.

I was always interested in applied mathematics, not pure, so I began taking preparatory courses at the Portsmouth Technical College, studying mathematics. That was my subject. I couldn’t tell you now why mathematics and not chemistry. I suppose I had no access to chemistry. You know, you’d need a laboratory to study chemistry.

Abbate:

They didn’t have one at Portsmouth College?

Slater:

Well, they did at Portsmouth College, but I was being trained privately before that.

Abbate:

Oh, you mean at home.

Slater:

Yes. I was a good musician, because my mother had a piano; I could play the piano well. She taught me Latin, but I never really took to it, although it’s a beautiful language, and I can still read it fairly well. She wanted me to be a Latin scholar. I don’t know why mathematics. I couldn’t tell you why I was bitten with the bug, why I like figuring. Maybe it was because I wasn’t very good at it.

I’ve got old books with sums that people have written down for me—when they were playing with me as child, they used to be doing sums for me! [Laughs. Takes photograph album from bookshelf.] This old book here has pictures of me and my parents; it’s a very old book and delicate, about eighty years old. [Turning pages.] This is me, as a child. And you’ll see the scribbling in some of these pages. Those figures are people doing little sums with me, before it was a photograph album. They amused me by doing these little sums, and showing me how to add and subtract and multiply and divide—you know, just with pencil and paper—and it was in this book that we were doing it.

I sort of kept a series of photographs and cuttings and whatnot, and just kept sticking them in here. [Points to photo of her father.] That was a photograph he took in advance, in case he won the dancing competition! So that was taken about a week before he died. He didn’t look as if he was a sick man. And I think there might have been a bubble of nitrogen in his blood, looking back on it.

Abbate:

From all that diving?

Slater:

Well, any diving in those days.

Experiences of World War II

Anyway, that’s brought me up to the war.

Abbate:

So you never went to an ordinary school?

Slater:

No. I never set foot in an ordinary school till I found myself landed with the job of a school teacher—which is rather funny, when you think about it.

Abbate:

So you went to Portsmouth Technical College . . .

Slater:

I entered the Portsmouth Technical College [at age 16]. Oh, before that I had a course on music, and I was playing in a jazz band. The night the war broke out, a Saturday night, the second of September 1939, I actually played the piano with Coleman Hawkins! Because I was a very good jazz pianist for my age. You may have heard of Nat Gonella; he was an English trumpeter. Nat Gonella had a jazz band, and Coleman Hawkins had come over to England and was playing his saxophone with Nat. The pianist was a Swede or something, war was breaking out, and he wanted to get back to Sweden, so he hopped it! As soon as they’d done their evening performance, he hopped it. But Nat wanted to go on to another jazz club that night—just jazzing, you know—and they had no pianist. So I was dragged in, because I was in the audience, and they knew that there was a little blue-rhythm swing girl! I had my moment of glory. [laughs.]

Abbate:

Wow!

Slater:

Mind, it was only pa-plonk-plonk, pa-plonk-plonk—it wasn’t anything very serious. But I knew enough of the background of how to be a jazz pianist to satisfy them, and by the time I was playing I dare say they were bit tiddly, anyhow! [laughs.] I landed home about three o’clock in the morning. But he was very kind, Coleman. He was a great, big, fat man, and he had a diamond on his little finger, his pinkie, that glistened as he was playing. It sparkled. I thought, “Oh, that’s a real one!”

Abbate:

That was in Portsmouth?

Slater:

Well, it was actually at Clarence Pier in Southsea. There was a hall there where they did their jazz concerts. But we had gone up to the jazz club, which was little more than a large tin shed behind a music shop in Lake Road. The Clarence Pier, the music shop and all of Lake Road were blown up to smithereens on January 10th, 1941.

I got machine-gunned in the autumn of 1940; I don’t think that helped my mathematical prowess very much! I was just peddling my bicycle along . . . I was still having music lessons, because I’d taken the grade six of the LRAM just as the war was breaking out, and I hadn’t got grade seven. The LRAM is an English licentiate of the Royal College of Music. L-R-A-M: now I’ve forgotten what they stand for. “Licentiate of the Royal Association of Music”? It doesn’t sound right. Anyway, it was LRAM, the letters for the degree. You had to take seven bits to it, and I’d got six, but I never got the seventh, so I can’t say I am an LRAM.

Slater:

I was only eighteen when the war broke out. Then I got involved with the war. I joined the ARP in 1940; ARP means “Air Raid Precautions.” I used to answer the telephones in that, and then I got that I could drive a van, taking the supplies round to the various ARP posts.

The 10th of January, 1941: my goodness, we were absolutely blitzed in Portsmouth! That changed my life, and why I’m still alive is a big mystery. I still find it very difficult to talk about it, but a psychiatrist friend of mine says, “You must talk about it. You must write about it.” We were preparing for the university entrance exams, and I had a boyfriend, as everybody did; and we were going to go up to the jazz club, which was our favorite place, on the Friday afternoon. And me being a bit of a blue-stocking, and in the ARP, I thought, “Well, perhaps I’d better go home and study.” I don’t know what made me go, but it undoubtedly saved my life. Some urge took me off, to go home to have a final sort of check-through before the exams on Monday—university entrance exams; they were called “matriculation” in those days. And I said, “No, I won’t go to the jazz club,” and my boyfriend said, “Oh, but you have to play the piano!” “No, I don’t want to play the piano; I want to go home and go on with my preparation.” And I got on my bicycle and peddled off home. I set out about four o’clock in the afternoon. I hadn’t got home when the siren went, as far as I remember. The rest of the class, probably about a dozen, were on their way to the jazz club, and they took refuge in an air raid shelter in a road called Arundel Street—and I never found out till years afterwards where they’d vanished to, because the blitz was so complete that we just didn’t know where people had gone! Apparently they’d had a direct hit on the surface shelter in Arundel Street, and they were all killed, or most of them, those who’d gone in the shelter. I should have gone with them! I don’t know what urge it was to go home and study my mathematics. Always mathematics was my favorite subject, but music was the other one.

So I got home, and I went round to the air raid post. I was attached to the Highbury air raid post, and I went round there to see what I could do. They said, “Oh no, we’re all right. Just rest until we need relief.” We had a first air raid where they dropped incendiaries on everything, to try and light up the place, and then they had a bombing run all down the wall of the dockyard—but they were outside the dockyard wall instead of within it, so my father’s old lab is still there, and most of the dockyard is still there; but virtually everything that was outside the dockyard wall was blown to smithereens—or set on fire and burnt to smithereens. There was a pause about eleven o’clock, and by that time the electricity was off, the gas was off, and the water supply was very poor; so it was obvious that the city was not functioning. We were entertained by the mayor driving up in his mayoral car, with the town clerk and the chauffeur and the town muniments. The head ARP post was under the Guild hall, and they’d been on duty there. The Guild hall had got on fire, and they’d stayed on duty till the last minute. The mayor was the last out; he’d got the safe open, and he hung his mayoral chain around his neck without thinking. There he is in a tin hat, all smoky and dirty in a boiler suit, with his mayoral chain hanging around his neck, clutching the town mace! And we had to laugh. You know, it did relieve the tension; and we thought at the time he’d done it to relieve the tension, but he hadn’t; he was quite unconscious he’d got the chain around his neck. [laughs.] So they joined us then, at that post, and it became the head post for the rest of the Blitz.

There were a good two thousand people killed in the raids. I went a fortnight ago to look at the grave; there’s a communal grave in Great Saint Mary’s Cemetery at Portsmouth, and there’s 220 people buried in that grave, a lot of them that were unknown. They had a communal service the following Thursday, which I thought was pretty good going for organizing priests. I’d never known priests agree with one another before, because everything was very, very separate, you know: if you were Anglican, you were Anglican; if you were Catholic you were Catholic; and never the twain shall meet! But on that occasion they did meet. A Rabbi who wanted to bury people of different faiths in separate graves said, “I shall know my own.” One of the other priests said, “Not if you’ve only got half of him!” And that made him come to his senses. They buried the 220 people that they had to bury in the communal grave, which is still there—like these graves you see now out in Bosnia: a long thing, and there is now a path with a wall along it, and the names (or “unknown”), and they used to have rose bushes, which they’ve replanted lately.

So I don’t know why I wasn’t killed that night. God must have a use for me.

Abbate:

So mathematics saved your life, then.

Slater:

Our house had been damaged, so we then moved to Southampton, where the school that my mother taught at had been evacuated. My mother got a job at the Southampton University College teaching Latin and Greek.

Going to College during WWII

Abbate:

This was 1942?

Slater:

Yes, that would be it, October ‘42. I entered the college—how I managed to pass my entrance exam, I don’t know! We did take the matriculation exam, those few of us who were there to take it, on the Monday, in the Portsmouth Technical College, which by some miracle had not been damaged and is still there now, though it had broken windows. And by some miracle we passed! But I found out afterwards that we only needed an 80% mark. Anybody taking the entrance exam under exceptional circumstances—e.g., air raids—must be given every opportunity to prove that they were fit to enter university. And they let me into the university. That was London External, that we were doing. But there were only about four of us left, and about twenty not there in the class.

Abbate:

I’m not sure what London External is.

Slater:

London University ran an external examination: you didn’t have to be at an internal College of London, because of the Blitz. Well, the Blitz had hardly started then, but they foresaw that you wouldn’t want to be in London to take your exam; you could take it at senior technical colleges round about. Portsmouth Tech was one of those, and we could then enter a degree course and take a degree at Southampton University, but it was a London University degree.

Abbate:

Ah, I see.

Slater:

I don’t think Southampton was a university at that time. It was attached to London. I don’t really know if it was a wartime thing, but it was something that came in with the war, and it stayed a long time after the war. So my first degree was an external London University degree.

Abbate:

And that was in mathematics and music?

Slater:

Well, the entry was the first degree, and I had to pass that in Latin; in those days you couldn’t enter a university unless you passed in Latin. My mother thought that was wonderful, because it meant I had to learn some more Latin! [laughs.] And she did push me, I must admit, and I did manage to scrape through in Latin. But mathematics was the main thing, and music. I think I took a French paper as well; I seem to remember a French paper.

Then I did two years as a student. I don’t know when I slept, because I was in the ARP, and the Blitz was going on all the time; Southampton was badly blitzed. I was driving this lorry, Southampton-Portsmouth, and supplied their ARP depot at the top of Portsdown Hill, or just behind the Portsdown Hill, [in Portsmouth]. I was driving in the lorry half the night, and I was supposed to be doing my studies during the day: I don’t know when I slept! [laughs.] Anyway, I managed to scrape through the exams and stay alive; that was the main thing.

And then right at the end of the war, I got . . . You’ve got it there.

Teaching Soldiers Trigonometry

Abbate:

[Looking at C.V.] It says a B.A. in ‘44.

Slater:

Yes. And then I got a job at Winchester County High School, teaching. What happened next, I wonder? Oh, wait a minute, there’s the SRDE people, that was it!

I could do trigonometry. This is where mathematics begins to take off, because there was an old lady at Southampton called Miss Trout, and she taught mathematics all her life. She retired in 1938, and then she came back to work in 1940, and she started teaching me applied mathematics—measuring things, computing real numbers, not just writing down a formula and playing about with it. She made a mathematician out of me, an applied mathematician who wanted to work with numbers—and if it wouldn’t work with numbers, it didn’t work, you know! She was a very good teacher, and she certainly turned me into a mathematician, so that I could work out numbers.

Somebody said, “She can do trigonometry!” Churchill had said that people training radar operators—who were at the end of an ack-ack gun, trying to point it at an aeroplane that’s dive-bombing them at 300 miles an hour—they had to work out by trigonometry what sort of angle they should have the gun pointed at! [laughs.] It’s absolutely ridiculous. But anyway, they sent me down from Winchester, all the way to Brockenhurst, nearly at Christchurch, in a place that’s called SRDE [the Signals Research and Development Establishment]. I went and gave them a lecture every Friday afternoon, and it was the Americans who took me in a jeep, and brought me back to Southampton, where I was actually living. That went on for a few months, in the late part of the war; and when the war was over, the English started taking me instead; and when war was properly over, they said, “Oh, would you want to drive yourself? You can have a car and drive yourself.” So I had a car then; they let me have a car for fifty pounds or something; I had to make a deposit. I bought it after the war, so I got a very nice new car for about a hundred pounds at the end of the war! Which was all I got out of it, I must say.

Now, at Southampton I was still in the ARP, and they had flying bombs right at the end of the war. I’d never seen one, and I thought, “Well, there won’t be many more now”—this would be June of ‘44—”I’ll stick my head out and see!” I’d kept my head down all that time; I’d been through about three hundred air raids—I wasn’t supposed to record them in my diary, but I did! So I stuck my head over the parapet. I saw this flying bomb coming, and it looked quite pretty, with the fire on its tail. I suddenly realized the fire had gone out and the engine had stopped running, and I’d got five seconds to get downstairs back into the bunker! I don’t know now whether I turned and fell, or whether I was blown down: what I do know is I banged my head, and I’ve still got a dent somewhere about there to prove it, and I damaged various parts of my body. I broke my wrist, I broke my ankle, and I damaged my back. I would have been hospitalized for months, if it hadn’t been that there were so many other people being killed in the same air raid. There were two men who were on duty at the warden’s post, who were just about twenty yards away from where I was, and they were blown to bits. They never even found them! They said they found some buttons. You know, that was the force of a flying bomb: a great big hole that would blow a block of buildings to nothing. People say the flying bombs weren’t very powerful, but that one was. It must have been a V2—no, it was a V1, because I saw it; it had wings. The war was over then: you know, that was the last raid that there was, of all those raids! Anyway, I was in a bit of a mess, but I managed to get up and stagger on. The things healed themselves; I don’t remember going to the doctor, but things healed, and I didn’t worry about it.

I got a job in Southampton, then, teaching at the university what we called the “returned empties”: all the troops who were coming out of the forces. They had been at university and wanted to go back to study, but they had to have refresher courses. It was mathematics I taught them. I always liked the algebraic mathematics and numerical mathematics; not all this rings and fields and whatnot, which had hardly started then; I never liked that. So I worked at that for a bit, and then I got the honors degree in 1947. I still don’t know how I managed to do it! [laughs.] You know, there was such a lot of work to be done. I couldn’t do it now!

I got the honors degree. As I said, I was very interested in the fact that if you wanted to calculate something, you had to do it with pencil and a bit of paper, or possibly a hand-driven machine where you could turn the handle—like a gas-meter sort of thing—and do calculations. Brunsvigas, they were called. We’d acquired some—we acquired some rather nice brandy, too—from Alamain. Why anyone wanted to lug one of those things all the way from Alamain, I don’t know! [laughs.] It was a German machine, and it was quite a good little machine.

I went to Bedford College, and I started doing proper theoretical mathematics, connected mainly with the solutions of various differential equations. I’d got a grant, again (I suspect) by the help of my uncle W.K. Well, he always seems to have had an effect on my life; he’s the man who lent my father five pounds! I think he was the one who got me a grant, because they were very difficult to come by, just after the war. I got fifteen pounds a quarter from the Drapers Company, and I got another grant from a thing called Scientific Research and Developments Grants; they gave me a grant for three years. I had the Drapers Company grant for the first year, I think it was, and then I got a three-year grant; and I finished the [honors degree at Southampton] in two—so I had a year to spare! I turned my eyes to London, and to Bedford College. I went and studied under Professor Bailey.

At that time the Schroedinger equations were the great thing; that was the solutions of the hydrogen atom. You couldn’t calculate it; it was taking the people in America woman-years to calculate even a tiny little equation. They were letting off those early atomic weapons without any knowledge about how big a bang it was going to make! And they were doing it in the desert in Utah. Why they didn’t blow half of America up is a mystery. They were already considering the hydrogen bomb, yet they couldn’t solve the Schroedinger equations! So the National Bureau of Standards came in the act—a man called [Alston S.] Householder.

[pauses to pull out some books.]

Anyway, I did manage to produce some theoretical solutions of the hydrogen equations [in my 1948 degree work, “Functions of Complex Variables” and “Functions of Mathematical Physics”]. Some years later I’ve got a thick chapter in the Handbook of Mathematical Functions. And some years after that, the Russians pinched it and republished it! [Shows a copy of the same book in Russian.]

Abbate:

In Russian.

Slater:

And they never paid me any royalties! I was rather annoyed. The Americans paid royalties, but the Russians didn’t. They said that they were not in a position to pay royalties, but if I would go to Russia, they would entertain me! [laughs.] I thought, “Yes, but would they ever let me go?” Because it was very sensitive material—the hydrogen bomb, you know! No wonder they wanted me to go to Russia; I’d be still sitting there in some labor camp or something! [laughs.]

Abbate:

This was quite state of the art, then?

Slater:

Oh, it was beyond state of the art.

Then we started in Cambridge with EDSAC I . . .

Working at Cambridge

Abbate:

How did you get to Cambridge?

Slater:

I have to go back to the place near Christchurch, [the Signals Research and Development Establishment]. There was a man called Eric Mutch, and he had something to do with it; I’m not quite clear what. When you go see Mrs. Marrs you might ask her. I’d met him before, and I met him in London. There was a big exhibition in London, [the 1951 Festival of Britain,] where they had a dome—Dome of Discovery, it was called—really like the one that’s just finished now.

Abbate:

The Millennium Dome in Greenwich?

Slater:

Yes; only it was in the center of London, near where the Festival Hall now is. They had a computer there, a sort of computer: you could play noughts and crosses on it. I met Eric there, quite by accident, as far as I remember, and we just greeted one another, as two people who knew one another; and he told me about this machine they were going to build at Cambridge. I thought, “That’s a good idea!” Because doing sums was the great obstacle—it was holding everything up, the fact that you couldn’t do sums correctly. Householder had rooms full of women with little electric machines that would do a little bit, but he couldn’t do any real calculations for the bombs that were being let off. And they’d already let two off, you know, at Nagasaki and Hiroshima! And Householder couldn’t tell me what he wanted it all for, because it was all so top secret.

Then I got an invitation from Fort Halstead. They were the people in England who were doing the same work, very top-secret. I went down to [the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at] Harwell for an interview. The man who was interviewing me met me at the door and took me in with him. Then, when we’d had the interview, he went home, and I went and had some lunch. I’m still inside Harwell. I went to the door, and I said, “Can I get out?” And the man said, “Who are you? You can’t be in here!” I said, “Well, I am!” And he had to send for the man who’d been interviewing me, who’d gone home, to come back several miles from where he’d gone to let me out, because he had to sign the pass to let me out. And that put me off working in that environment. I know my father had had a lot of trouble with his secret work, and I thought, “I’m not going down that path again.”

Then my mother was looking at the offer that they’d made me: they wanted to make me a Senior Scientific Officer, but because I was a woman, I was only going to get the salary of a Scientific Officer. Well, her Irish blood was fully roused, and she told me what I could do with it—that I wasn’t her daughter if I was going to stand for that! Oh, when she lost her temper, she could make a good job of it. [Points to a photo of her mother on the wall.] That’s her behind there. She looks very peaceful, but . . .! [laughs.] So I declined. I didn’t actually decline; I said, “I’m not working unless I get the same salary as a man.” And they wrote back and said, “Oh, certainly!” Shocked me! [laughs.] So I then declined; I said I already had another job.

Abbate:

And that was at Cambridge?

Slater:

It was a bit of a lie. I’d had an offer to come to Cambridge that wasn’t really a job, but it was to use up the last year of my grant at Cambridge.

Abbate:

So that was in 1951.

Slater:

That was 1951. I’d already been to Cambridge, in ‘49, and there was some difficulty because I wasn’t a Cambridge graduate. So ‘49 and ‘50 were spent halfway between Cambridge and Bedford College, where I was writing a thesis on the theory of functions, the Schroedinger Equation solutions. These are books and things, here. [Indicates a shelf holding her London M.A. thesis, “Generalized Hypergeometric Series,” 1949; her London Ph.D. thesis, “Functions of Hypergeometric Type,” 1951; and her Cambridge Ph.D. thesis, “Hypergeometric Integrals,” 1953.]


First Interaction with a Computer

Abbate:

Now, was that the first time you saw a computer, at that fair in London?

Slater:

I’d been to Imperial College, where they were developing one, out of curiosity. Curiosity nearly killed this cat! But still, it also leads you into unexpected byways, and I’d always had the feeling that a computer that would do sums was a great idea. And in ‘49 I came up to Cambridge, specifically to look at the laboratory that was just being developed and making newspaper headlines. And I also went to Oxford, who hadn’t a clue! The Oxford people were only just beginning to think about it. Manchester were the other people who were going to build a computer. Have you been in touch with Mrs. Mutch yet?

Abbate:

Yes, I’m seeing her this afternoon.

Slater:

Oh, you’re seeing her this afternoon. Well, give her my love, because we’re close friends. Anyway, she’ll be able to tell you about the Manchester end, because she was a Manchester woman. She was called Lewin at that time, Margaret Lewin.

I’d had some contact with the Manchester people; I’d been to look, out of curiosity. As a student you could wander in and out; there were no restrictions—there weren’t commercial restrictions or anything. That was ‘49. I probably paid more visits in ‘50, just to see where they were getting. I can’t remember, except that the machine was being developed. I was wanting to get here to Cambridge, and I’d got a year’s grant spare. It was just curiosity; it wasn’t anything else driving me, except wanting to get real numbers into these theoretical equations, before somebody blew the world up! [laughs.]

Abbate:

So, you wanted to do computing even before you ever had a chance to use an actual machine?

Slater:

Yes: with a pencil and a bit of paper, and then with a hand-driven Brunsviga, and then an electric Facit . So when I got to Cambridge, I knew how to do it by hand. The standard books in those days—I don’t know if you’ve got a list of those, have you? I haven’t got a list of them, but I’ve got some of them here. [Takes more books from shelf.] These were required reading. I think this is probably the first one.

Abbate:

Douglas R. Hartree, Numerical Analysis. [Oxford, 1952.]

Slater:

Hartree, yes; and that other one by Hartree.

Abbate:

Calculating Instruments and Machines. [University of Illinois, 1949.]

Slater:

And this one that was published at the Lab. [Shows book.] This is EDSAC I. That’s Wilkes, Wheeler, and Gill.

Abbate:

Preparation of Programmes for an Electronic Digital Computer, by Maurice Wilkes, David Wheeler, and Stanley Gill. [Addison-Wesley, 1951]. I think they used the same books in the United States.

Slater:

Oh yes, I’m sure they must have. But that was the first proper book on a computer, as distinct from calculating machines! [laughs.] Because the American work was all geared to the atomic bombs, and it was theory, you know.

Finally I had got through all the hurdles, and I was an associated student, I’ve forgotten what they called it. I had already got the London Ph.D., and they decided then that they’d better skip the requirement that I needed to do a two-year degree course here at Cambridge before I could be accepted on a Cambridge Ph.D., because I already had a London Ph.D.! So I turned up at Girton College in ‘51.

Working with Computers at Cambridge

Abbate:

So you got a second Ph.D. at Cambridge?

Slater:

I’ve got seven degrees all together. I got a B.A. General, B.A. Honors, M.A., Ph.D., and later a D.Litt. at London, so that was five at London; so I must have a Ph.D. and an Sc.D. at Cambridge: that makes seven.

Anyway, I land in Cambridge, and I go to the Lab, and the first thing I discovered was [laughs]: there were no toilets for women! They employed women—there were people to do the cleaning, people to make the tea, people to do the typing—but there were no female toilets. It didn’t bother me too much, because I’d been using unisex toilets all through the war, you know; just one toilet for the whole staff of the ARP post, and you were lucky. But it bothered the men! They said, “What happens when we want to go, and she’s in there?” [laughs.] And I said, “Well, I’m not working all night and going down three flights of steps and across the courtyard and then down some more steps to get to a ladies’ toilet—in the pouring rain, and leaving the computer on its own!” Because in those days we had to use it at night; it was being built in the day, and used at night. There should have been two of us on duty at night, but what usually happened was that one took over till midnight, and the other one came in about midnight and ran on the rest of the night—if it was running.

EDSAC I was a rather recalcitrant sort of computer. You saw those racks in that picture , the valves. The thing that happened was, the valves rose up in their seats—got a bit sort of loose, overheating. It was terrific heat in the room; they’d got a hundred kilowatts going through. So you just gave it a hearty kick, and sometimes that got it going again! [laughs.] Surprising! And the other thing was: We had a lot of trouble with things setting on fire, because the engineers kept joining bits on without calculating whether there was any power supplies available to feed these things. Down in the basement is the power supply from the mains, and that overheated; and on one occasion when I was there, the fire brigade came dashing along and stuck a hose through a grille to get into the basement, to put it out that way. And the poor engineer was having a blue fit, and he says, “No, no! I’ll do it! I’ll do it!” Because it would have ruined the whole thing. And we were on the top floor, on the fourth floor, so we didn’t know what was going on. We could have been fried very easily! [laughs.]

But they were good times; we had a lot of fun. We were developing something new. We never foresaw how big it was going to be, but we did have a lot of fun developing it. There was a pub called the Red Cow—which is still there, quite a nice pub—and just before closing time, anybody who was around was dispatched over there to get sustenance for the rest of the night; and if it was something that needed to be kept warm, we could put it on the top of the delayed store on EDSAC I. [laughs.] Well, it was generating a hundred kilowatts; it was almost as good as an electric oven! And we could keep it warm then, and even overcook it sometimes, until we were ready to eat it. We usually had a good meal about midnight, and then one operator went on running the machine, and the other one went off home. Again, I don’t know when I slept: because I was writing during the day, teaching students, and trying to earn a few bob on the side, you know. I don’t know when I slept. I was very short of sleep from 1940 to about 1960, that’s all I can say! [laughs.] I got used to being short of sleep, I suppose.

Abbate:

You were doing your own work on the computer?

Slater:

I was doing the calculations of the Schroedinger Equation solutions, the hypergeometric functions, and in the particular the confluent hypergeometric functions. It’s that book that you touched just then; that was the outcome.

It was a very long job on EDSAC I, but it was just about possible. It was at the limits of EDSAC I. The program took the entire store—I expect you’ve got details of EDSAC I somewhere?

Abbate:

Yes.

Slater:

So you know what its capacity was. [EDSAC I had 1024 17-bit words of memory.] I’ve got a little book somewhere about it. That’s it: the supplement [to Preparation of Programmes for an Electronic Digital Computer]. I don’t know whether you’ve seen that, because it was a supplement that was issued to the Lab. Now you’ve seen the proper book, and that’s a supplement—to give you an idea of what we were doing.

Abbate:

How long would it take to run your program?

Slater:

Well, it depended how long it ran! It was a program that could go on running, and in theory it could have calculated everything I needed—if it had gone on running. [laughs.] It ran until something broke down!

Abbate:

It would run for hours?

Slater:

Oh, yes, it would have gone on indefinitely—if the computer had run indefinitely. I suppose about fifteen minutes would be a very long run indeed! [laughs.] Then it was a case of a hearty kick and a few swear words from the men.

There were two engineers at that time, Sid Barton and Wilf Waldock; and someone in overall charge: Mr. Eric Mutch, who was Mrs. Mutch’s first husband, had the overall charge, but he ran it in the day; he wasn’t there at night. Let’s see, there was Gordon Stevens, who also had a controlling sort of role sometimes; he was usually there in the evenings with the two engineers, Sid Barton and Wilf Waldock. There was a typist—I don’t know what she was called; Mrs. Mutch might remember—the lady you saw in that photograph in the EDSAC book. And a lady who cleaned, and a lady who made tea, and that was about it! There were very few academic staff. I think I was the second woman. There was a Beatrice Worsley, who was the first academic woman allowed near the computer, and she went off to Manchester, as far as I remember. Mrs. Mutch may remember; she probably knew her better than I did.

Worsley was an academic woman doing academic research, so she had higher status than the people who were minding the machine. You see, they had no status! That was the other thing. They were doing all this development work, and they were supposed to be getting a Ph.D. somewhere in the background. Like David Wheeler: he was supposed to be getting a Ph.D. Wilkes: he was a lecturer in something or other. He’s still alive. He lives at the corner house here.

Abbate:

I’ve met him.

Slater:

Maurice Wilkes. And David Wheeler’s still alive. He lives at the bungalow at the top of the next road, Richmond Road. He’s still alive. His wife, Dr. Joyce Wheeler, might have a few things to say. She was an early EDSAC user—but it was EDSAC II, in her case. He was an EDSAC I user. Peter Swinnerton-Dyer went on to be the head of the Grants Commission and Vice Chancellor of the University—but at that time, he was a young student who was playing with EDSAC.

But there were very few paid people playing with EDSAC. The university didn’t really believe in computers at that time, and there wasn’t any money to finance them very much. But there was a great parade of every scientist in the country, sending a research student to use it! A lot of them were Cambridge people. There were the Braggs, Sir Lawrence and—I’ve forgotten what his brother was called; was it Sir Austin? And the fellow in charge of the National Physical Lab at Teddington, I don’t remember what he was called. All the great scientists had seen the point and were sending people into the Lab to learn.

We were extremely congested, because it was only a small building, and it was crammed with electronics on the top floor, and a sort of floor that wasn’t a floor, with a hole up in the middle—a mezzanine—then a floor where there were offices and desks and whatnot, and a place where the engineers could build the thing. It was absolutely crammed to the seams! I shared a desk not much bigger than this coffee table with Fred Hoyle. Hoyle and Littleton were two mathematicians at the time, both of them working as mathematics lecturers and playing at night on the computer, and fighting with one another verbally. One was a Yorkshire man, the other was a Lancashire man, so they fought the Wars of the Roses! And when it was a cricket match, of course, one didn’t dare mention it, if the cricket had gone the wrong way! But I liked Fred, we talked the same language. I didn’t know Littleton so well.

Then all the other people who were mathematicians at the time felt they had to have a finger in the pie. John Kendrew, James Watson, Francis Crick: all Nobel Prize winners. And there were Huxleys there—Andrew Huxley—and people who came from abroad: there were Australians, New Zealanders. Everybody was jumping on the bandwagon and getting an hour or two’s use of the computer, or paying people like me to do it for them—because it wasn’t easy, programming with an oscilloscope and a display of spots!

Day-to-Day Experience working with Computers

Abbate:

How did you learn it? Did someone train you to use it?

Slater:

There was nobody training anybody, because it was all new! You couldn’t learn something, you had to discover what worked. And write it down if it did—quick, before the spots vanished! [laughs.] It was very hard going, you know, even such a simple little thing as getting a number to come out in the right order. I calculated “e” as my first real calculation on the computer. One-point-whatever-it-is—you know, “e.” When it printed out, it printed out back-to-front, with about five digits in the wrong order! And I looked at this, and I thought, “I’ve got the right digits”; but it took me about a fortnight to get the program to work with the digits in the right order, printing a decimal point as well—because nobody had done it, you know: it just had not been done. When I got it to work, it was wonderful! I could put myself in the place of the computer, because I hadn’t got any preconceived ideas about it; so I got the reputation of being a good programmer. The program did what it was expected to do.

Women had the patience: that was the point. We had the patience to try, and if we didn’t succeed, try again. If you’ve ever baked a sponge cake, you know what it’s like! [laughs.]

Abbate:

How many women were there using the computer when you were there?

Slater:

Well, Beatrice had already left. I was there, and Mrs. Mutch was always around, but she was not academic. I was on my own for a lot of the time. And there was this business about the lavatory: after about a fortnight into my first term, a man came to measure up for a new lavatory! They had said they hadn’t got room, but they decided they had got room in the corner of the ladies’ restroom. They had to have a ladies’ restroom by regulation.

Abbate:

So there was a restroom, but not a lavatory in it.

Slater:

There was a restroom with nothing in it except a table and a few chairs. But there was one lavatory for the men and no lavatory for the women, because they were supposed to go to another one—in the university science library, I suppose. I’ve forgotten where it was now, but it was a long walk. It was ridiculous! But the men’s lavatory was all right when I was using it, because the men had to whistle before they went in, in case I was in there! And I was singing, in case they did come in without whistling. [laughs.]

I mean, it was true: if you’re working at night you can’t leave a thing like that—worth about £30,000 at those prices—on its own, when it’s likely to start setting on fire or something. You had to be handy to put the thing out! And I must admit that I was very well-trained; I’d put out plenty of incendiary bombs in the war. But I never had to actually put the machine out, which was just as well.

We did have fun. There was that feeling we were doing something new. I think that perhaps the astronauts felt the same: just that feeling of being on unknown territory, and what’s going to happen next? That was the peak of my life, certainly from sheer pleasurable enjoyment!

Yes, I think I was the only woman there. I was well trained to work with the men, because of being in the Blitz and not worrying about whether it was a man or a woman.

Abbate:

Interesting.

Slater:

And I used to not dress up. Some women, like the typist in particular: she used to wear very short skirts and be all done up to the ‘49s! That put the men off. They’d say, “Hey, that’s a nice pair of legs!” I don’t know if I had a nice pair of legs or not, but I kept them tucked away, and wore fairly long, drab clothes. I didn’t wear trousers in the Lab—I had worn enough trousers in the war—but I did keep my clothing sort of subdued and not attractive. I was trying to not attract. I didn’t always succeed [laughs], but still, most of them got the message.

One woman came to see the Lab in the evening, just knocked on the door and said Could she come in? She was somebody’s wife. I said, “Oh yes, come in,” because I was the academic; I was in charge. So she went upstairs, and her husband showed her the machine. Then I had to let her out again. And I said something like, “Did you see what you wanted to see?” She said, “Oh yes; and I’ve met you, and I know now there’s nothing to worry about!” I thought to myself, “What on earth was she worrying about?” I said this to my mother, and she says, “Well, she was probably worrying about her husband making a pass at you!” [laughs.] That was the conclusion we reached. [laughs.] Oh, dear! We did have fun.

I don’t know what else I can tell you. At that time I was concentrating on the hypergeometric functions. Actually I ought to say a bit about applied economics. There was a fellow called Allen Brown, and he was fairly high up in applied economics; he was the second from the top in Economics. He used to come in the Lab sometimes, but he hadn’t the patience—the men wanted the program to go immediately, if not sooner! And it didn’t; it was a matter of taking weeks to develop it and get it working correctly. He said to me, Could I help him? I’m always ready for a few bob on the side, you know, cash in my pocket, and I said “Yes.” So I did some work for them, and it was all right. And I did that job for the Americans on the Schroedinger solutions and got paid for that. I got $1300 for that, which was a lot of money in those days; I bought a new car with it. I had the greatest difficulty in getting it out of Milton Abramovich. He didn’t want to pay—didn’t want to part with the money. [laughs.] Well, I got by all right. I wasn’t rich, but I wasn’t without money, and the taxman never knew! [laughs.] I don’t suppose the university authorities did either. But the programs got made; they got made and they worked, and that was all that was needed.

By that time I had a bad back; I had a very bad back. It had been damaged in the explosion in 1944, and I’d been probably not attending to it; I hadn’t any medical attention. Some time about ‘55, I landed in Addinbrook’s Hospital. I’d fallen, and I couldn’t get up when I’d fallen. I was in agony, and they put me in plaster from there to there, and said that I’d had a dislocated spine for about five years. Ever since the bomb, I’d been wandering about with a dislocated spine, and eating pain-killers, aspirin and whatnot, as if there were hundreds and thousands. So they got me over that, and my back was better. They gave me a fellowship at Newnham College about that time, for three years.

Advancing her Research

Abbate:

[Looking at CV:] So that’s the Bateson research fellowship, 1953-56.

Slater:

Yes, the fellowship at Newnham. That didn’t help my back, because there was lovely food at Newnham. The chef was one of the best chefs in Cambridge. He was called Harry Newman. He was supposed to have a cordon bleu—it’s some sort of cooking order, you know—and he used to cook the most exquisite foods. If you asked him for a poached egg on toast, it would come back with all the trimmings; you’d probably have a soufflé omelet by the time he’d finished! And I’m afraid I put on three stones in weight in three years, although I was working day and night and not sleeping very much. At the end of that time, that was when my back gave way, and I had to have something done about it. They did get it right, I’m glad to say. That was when I decided I must have a sitting-down job.

Abbate:

Not teaching.

Slater:

Not teaching, no. I couldn’t stand for any length of time; I still can’t stand for a long time without it aching. So then they found me some sort of fellowship at Newnham—it was a research fellowship—and I started doing work for applied economics whilst I was on the fellowship, quite legally. In the meantime, I published a lot of theoretical papers in London, and I got the London D. Litt. in 1956.

[She looks through several volumes of books with green bindings.] Yes, that’s the sort of stuff.

Abbate:

These are publications of the Department of Applied Mathematics. [A multi-volume series titled A Programme for Growth.]

Slater:

Yes. The first one is the one on the top. The green’s faded almost. But that’s the one I was most interested in.

Abbate:

A Computable Model of Economic Growth.

Slater:

Yes. You’ll find a list of those in that CV I gave you. And that was the dream: a computable model of economic growth. I had to find out how to do regression analysis on a computer! [laughs.] And how to invert a matrix on a computer. Everything had to be done from scratch.

Abbate:

So those hadn’t been done?

Slater:

Oh, no! I mean, who was wanting them done? Until you want them done, it had to be done. I don’t know how much statistics you know, but regression analysis involves inverting the matrix, which can be near singular. A near-singular matrix is a very difficult thing, even now, to get to behave properly. In those days, we could only invert a three-by-three on EDSAC I, and that was considered good going! When EDSAC II came in, we could go up to about twelve-by-twelve. If I devoted the whole Sunday afternoon—or Saturday afternoon, or whenever nobody else was using the computer—I could invert a twelve-by-twelve matrix. And that caused a stir, because it hadn’t been done before.

Abbate:

So you were developing fundamental algorithms.

Slater:

Yes. The machine was programmed to do it; it wasn’t called “algorithms” in those days. It was a programme that did it.

We then got requests from all sorts of people. Mars Bars springs to mind. The Mars toffee people were very interested in getting a matrix of twelve-by-twelve inverted. But how could they pay us? We said, “Oh well, we’ll have samples!” They sent up a great big box , and we were eating Mars Bars and I don’t know what! [laughs.]

Abbate:

They paid you in chocolate bars? [laughs.]

Slater:

Yes, they paid us with a great big crate full of all sorts of Mars Bars and things like that that they made! Because they hadn’t got money to pay for that sort of research, you see, but they could send out samples. And one of the engineers said, “Why don’t we do some work for the beer people?” [laughs.]

That’s how it went on: Unofficial calculations being done all over the place for all sorts of unlikely people. I remember one chap did some calculations for the lifeboat; they wanted stability of their new lifeboat, and it could be done on a computer much quicker than anybody could do it by hand. A research student did it, and that was considered a payment to the lifeboat for a charity; it was a charitable payment. I think he probably got paid from the University, but it went as charity to the Lifeboat Institution in the account! All sorts of things like that, to get calculations done that were desperately needed for all sorts of good causes (and some that weren’t so good), and no money to pay for them. That was the great big bugbear. But we did enjoy it, I must admit.

Allen Brown then said that he wanted to start a proper computing unit that could get the work done for preparing the programs and the data to be put into EDSAC II.

Abbate:

This was computing in the economics department?

Slater:

No, no, there was no computing in the economics department, except for the inevitable woman room—a room full of about ten or twelve women, all desperately churning away on ordinary Marchant calculators. It was to get the [economics department’s] data ready.

At the interview, there were two old men there who were very senior economists. I said that I needed somebody to help me with the punching. Punching paper tapes was what I meant, and most of the people around the interviewing board—Allen Brown, Richard Stone—right away knew what I meant, but Professor Robertson didn’t. He was a generation before them. He looked horrified, and he said, “Do you mean you have to fight to get your own work done?” I couldn’t understand what he was talking about. The other men laughed, and then somebody explained to him that it was paper tape, and it was punching holes in paper tapes! [laughs.] Anyway, I got the job then to get their computing put in order.

Abbate:

At this point, you were heading a computer service group? What would you call it?

Slater:

Me: I was the group! [laughs.] And I had a girl called Ruth Loshack. Harry Loshack was the secretary for the department, and she was his daughter. So I trained her to do some punching for me. It was a typing job, but she had to be able to check that the pattern of holes was correct. There’s a picture of a woman doing it in that book, Wilkes, Wheeler, and Gill.

Abbate:

Right, there was one right at the beginning.

Slater:

And it was a long, slow job because of the checking. In those days, it had to be done twice, and then the two tapes compared through a machine which compared them, and stopped if there were holes that were was different—that didn’t agree. You needed two copies, because paper tapes tore very easily. So it was a long job, and it took her all day to do it, and then I ran it in the night. A young man called Feinstein who worked in the department developed a desire to come and collect her from her work, and I thought, “Aye, aye, what’s going on here?” It wasn’t very long before they were married! So I lost my computer puncher. [laughs.] Somebody else took the job on, then.

I had a very good research assistant called Gilbert Warren. He came to me about then, and he would help to run the programs. He was an intelligent young man, although he really hadn’t been educated at all, but he picked it up very quickly and helped me to run the things at night, so that I actually could go home and get a bit of sleep!

About the same time, we start developing this idea of the model of the economy. [Indicates A Computable Model of Economic Growth.]

Abbate:

Now, for whom were you doing this?

Slater:

Professor Sir Richard Stone. He became a knight; he was knighted afterwards for his work for the Treasury, actually, because they did take a model of the economy. They never used it, but they paid us for it, and took it and put it on the shelf somewhere! [laughs.]

Research into Economics

Abbate:

It says here on your CV that in 1962 you got an appointment as Assistant Director of Research in the Department of Economics. Was that when you were working on this computable model of the economy?

Slater:

Yes. A number of economists who are now famous people—like Mervyn King, who is the Director of the Bank of England; and Dr. Bhatacharia, who was killed on 9/11 in the World Trade Tower One, Floor 50—many economists who are now at the peak of their careers came to learn from me, in Applied Economics, how to use a computer. You know: how to do a bit of statistics, and how to invert a matrix without it being too singular, and that sort of thing; the numeric side of it. It was better than atomic bombs. If I’d taken the job at Fort Halstead, I would have been designing atomic bombs, and that would have clashed with my religious principles. I felt that if I got something wrong in Applied Economics, the worst that could happen would be a recession! [laughs.] It rather comforted me that the stuff went to the Treasury, because they were paying to finance all this work and they never did anything with it. They hadn’t even got a computer to run it on in those days!

So that went on all through the life of EDSAC II, and I found it a very pleasant period of my life, teaching people things. I enjoyed teaching people.

Abbate:

You did that right from 1962 to 1982?

Slater:

Until I retired, yes. I only ever had the one job, and I stuck with it. I’d been doing it before ‘62; it was official in ‘62, but I’d been doing it for a good five or seven years before that, just payments out of whatever fund would stand it!

But I really enjoyed it, I must admit. My unit, the room with twelve women with calculators, gradually changed to a room with one man with a computer and three women, and only the other week, one of the women drove from Christchurch over to see me. She’s now a married woman with three children, and she’d worked for me then, all those years ago. She wanted to see me again—and we recognized one another! My staff has been surprisingly loyal to me. They all stuck at their jobs, and were ready to work at night and weekends when there was a bit of a crash on. You know, “I’ve got to get this done for Monday or else,” or “It’s the budget coming up, and if we don’t check these figures . . . .” And they did! And they still send me a card at Christmas and at Easter, or my birthdays; some of them send birthday presents as well. I think, “It’s nearly twenty years since I retired; it’ll be twenty years in the autumn!” And yet they still come to me and see me if they’re near, and if I’m near them they drive over to see me. It surprises me, that loyalty, to go on so long.

Abbate:

They were programming for you?

Slater:

Not programming: preparing data, mainly. There was a big databank we used to run for the Stock Exchange people, all the prices of the London stock market, and at that time it was on punched cards; we’d got some punched card machinery. We did calculations for all sorts of people on a very ad hoc sort of basis: if they paid money, we were all right. The University didn’t worry too much about what those crazy people in Applied Economics were doing, any more than they worried about what the crazy people in the Maths Lab were doing!

In the early days of the Lab, Wilkes used to go around to the American Army Air Force disposal auctions; they used to have auctions of what they were disposing of, about ‘48, ‘50, that period, when they were packing up to go home. They never have gone home, in places like Lakenheath, but they were getting ready to go home then, and selling off. He’d go around with one of the engineers, usually Sid, and he’d buy up anything that they thought might be useful. There was a crate of valves, 144 valves. They’d get it into the Lab, and then start wondering what to use it for. One day they bought the whole of the inside of a control tower! [laughs.] And it was left standing outside, because it was too big to go in the Lab. They had to dismantle it and take the bits they wanted and then pay somebody to cart the rest away. That was the very early days of EDSAC I, though Wilkes can tell you more about that than I can; there were no women involved in that.

Abbate:

You must have used a whole series of different computers.

Slater:

Yes, I more or less went round collecting computers. I started with EDSAC I. Well, I suppose I played with the Imperial College one, the one that did that game called—was it Min? Anyway, it was noughts and crosses, and I used to play with that sometimes. Then I got to Cambridge, and I used the EDSAC I. I went over to [the National Physical Lab at] Teddington to look at their Ace machine, which was starting to work about the same time, and the second Ace. And I went up to Manchester, of course, on a regular basis, because I still had a lot of relatives there. They wanted me to go and work at Ferranti’s. Ferranti says, “Oh, I’d like you to come and work here,” and I say, “Oh, I don’t like it up here; there’s no sunshine!” It was a very Manchester sort of day; you must take your umbrella when you go to Manchester. And he says, “Well, we could paint a blue ceiling on your office!” [laughs.]

That was the Pegasus I. I had a finger in Pegasus I, and there were later Ferranti machines, and sometimes I did a little job for them, a programming sort of job. Well, it was really systems analysis—to show what they had to make the machine do, rather than doing it myself—using the experience I’d gained on EDSAC. I usually went up in the summer for a week or two, you know, and earned a few bob. Again, it was all back-pocket money; the taxman never knew about it! [laughs.] Well, I got a good lunch and about ten quid in my pocket, and that was better than having twenty quid in my pocket and income tax at 50p in the pound.

So, that’s how life went on. Now, where have we got to?

=List of the Computers Used during her Career

Abbate:

Well, let’s see. The other computers: you used the Titan?

Slater:

Oh, this was before Titan. When EDSAC II was coming to the end of its life, Eric Mutch, Mrs. Mutch’s husband, put my name forward—I was due for a sabbatical year—to advise in the University of Essex, who were setting up their computing lab. At that time ICL was the big computing thing, and the chap in charge of ICL was interested in this new university and its new computer, and he said he’d give us something. I looked, and I said, “Well, they could do with another storage unit, and that’s going to cost another ten thousand.” Because I was actually buying computers at that time for Economics, and advising the university on computing equipment in general, so I knew what was on the market. I told him how things were going, and he invited me to go and see him. I think he was a bit doubtful about a woman setting up the computer; I think that’s what his hang-up was. But when I turned the full blast of my charm on him, he gave us double what I’d asked for for a new storage unit! [laughs.] And I had a very satisfactory day with him. It was Alan Brown who’d got that phrase; he said, “You must have turned the full blast of your charm on him!” [laughs.] It stuck: People said, “Oh, come and turn the full blast of your charm on so-and-so; we can’t get him to do this or that.” [laughs.] But he was very kind to us.

The first year I was in Cambridge, my mother had come to live with me, and she said, “There’s nothing for me in Cambridge; I think I’ll go and get a bungalow at the seaside.” So she went off and bought a bungalow at the seaside—and it was the wrong way of the stuff: it’s the daughter who leaves the mother, not the mother who leaves the daughter! [laughs.] She was always a bit of a lateral thinker. But whilst I was at the University of Essex, I actually stayed in her bungalow for the six months involved, and then the next year I went back again for another six months.

So I had a fairly large influence on what they did at Essex, because it was limited by the computer power. It was an ICL—ICL one hundred and two, three, four, five, six: it sort of grew with time. They had an operating system that was out of date even then. It was called George—you’d got George I, George II, George III, George IV—and the joke was that George IV was about the date that it was working! You know, it was a very antiquated system, because there was such a gap between what was going on in Cambridge and what was going on in the rest of England. I don’t know about America. There was a fairly large exchange between England and Chicago; the people at Chicago came to us, and we went to them. I didn’t go. The only time I was in line to go, the ocean liner set on fire. I was always a poor traveler, and in the war I couldn’t travel, because you needed a pass to get on and off Portsmouth Island at one stage. I was never fond of transporting my body about. People come to me, I don’t go to them. I was booked to go on this liner, to go across to America—I’ve forgotten what I was going to do—I had my ticket booked and my bag packed and I was ready to go to Southampton. The liner set on fire coming this way. It was the only way to get across the Atlantic in those days. What was it called? It was an Italian liner; the Angelina Lauro? Anyway, everybody had to be rescued. I don’t think there were many people killed, but the boat was burned out, and there was no boat to take me to America. Then I thought, “Well, that’s God sending me a sign to stay in Cambridge!” [laughs.]

Abbate:

That’s a bit ominous!

Slater:

I only came for a year, but I’m still here, and that’s—good gracious; that’s 52 years ago! [laughs.] So I must like the place. I don’t like the climate, but I like the place.

[Suddenly remembering:] It was Lord Playfair, the fellow who was in charge of ICL at that time, who gave me double what I asked for. And he did subsidize that laboratory very heavily. Didn’t live very far from it, so that’s perhaps why.

Notice my backing store is slower now; it took it several minutes to get the name “Playfair” out. When I wanted it, it wasn’t there; it’s no longer instantaneous. The mind works very like a computer that’s got a worn hard disk: it takes longer! [laughs.]

Now, the other computers: There was the Elliott Number One. That came into the Lab when it was being developed, and they used our brains very freely to feed the development. I’d run them things. The programs that I’d already got running on the EDSAC I could get running on their machine very easily, with a minimum of effort.

That was one of them. There was EDSAC II, and then Titan in the Lab. Where else did I go? I’ve really forgotten. I went in to London. They were setting up a big computing unit in the London University, and I had a finger in that pie. I finished up with a CDC there.

[TAPE 2, SIDE 1]

Abbate:

What were some of the other projects you worked on?

Slater:

I’m just trying to think. Just to finish off the computers: There were the big CDC’s at London University, and I transferred some programs to them. And I had a sort of job with the Economist magazine, advising them about these big economic models that were coming in, and what could be done and what couldn’t be done.

At about this stage somebody stole a copy of our model—actually stole the physical tapes of it that were so important—this model of the economy. They thought they could do something with it, but of course they hadn’t got the know-how, so they never did.

Miscellaneous Projects

Abbate:

How strange!

Slater:

That got me into the habit of putting a fault in the tape, and an override tape to cure the fault; so that if anybody stole the paper tape, which was a big roll by this time, it had got a fault in it; it didn’t work. But the override tape was in my pocket, so I could make it work. Nobody else could.

Abbate:

You were a computer security pioneer!

Slater:

I suppose so, yes. Well, it was necessary, if someone were going to do that!

Abbate:

Did that happen very much?

Slater:

Well, it certainly happened to me on that occasion! This was when we were transferring stuff from Cambridge to the London machine.

Abbate:

And that was in the ‘60s sometime?

Slater:

Yes, it would be. When the CDCs first came.

The Economist people were very interested in this model. I don’t know what date this would be, but it was at the time when we were first beginning to send stuff over to the other side of the Atlantic—”the other side,” as we called it. We could transfer stuff on land lines and send signals across by satellite link; this is very much later. They had copies of this model, which was a British economy model. I’m never quite sure whether it was the one that had been stolen or whether it was the one that had been developed legally that the Treasury had lent them, but they had copies of this model running. Chase Manhattan Bank were financing it, and they had copies running in the Chase Manhattan Banks at New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, and London. So when things had to be changed, we had to go around this world link—and that was a computer pioneering effort! You had to get up in the night and do it, because the land lines were so busy and so bad in the day, and then you had to say, “Now, what time is it in San Francisco? Is their line going to be quiet now?” [laughs.] And it fun! You know, it was sort of fun. But the lines were very bad.

Abbate:

So this was an early networking attempt?

Slater:

Very early! Oh, before that we’d had a network in England, in the university. I remember somebody coming to try and sell us a new computer about 1960, and he says, “Oh, you’ll be able to send messages from here to your office in Sidgwick Avenue.” And I said, “I’ve been doing that for three years!” [laughs.] You know, we had a network all over the university very early. Mrs. Mutch might be able to give you a date, because I had no part in the development. But the time came when I didn’t have to move from my office; I could do what I wanted to do in my office, and it was done in the Lab automatically. And that was a long time ago! I can’t really place it—at the time my mother died, I would say; perhaps 1970? I haven’t got anything I can hook it onto. But there was certainly a network in the university very early. And then it extended to various other universities and was over all the universities of England, or all the big ones. London and Manchester early, and then the others followed; Oxford was quite late. Oxford always lagged behind, I don’t know why. They didn’t approve of numbers! [both laugh.]

Abbate:

What that JANET, the Joint Academic Network?

Slater:

Oh, that’s the later name for it, yes. [laughs.] But I remember Professor Kaldor in a committee meeting; we’d been discussing what we were wanting in the way of money to buy more computing machinery, which was always my story; and Stone always backed me. And Kaldor says, “Dr. Slater has infected the entire faculty of economics with numeracy!” [both laugh.] He said it in a tone of voice that made it sound like the Black Plague! He couldn’t do sums beyond the back of an envelope. He was at that time the head Economic Advisor to the Wilson Government, and it seemed awful to me that the head advisors couldn’t do sums; they were advising on pure theory. Just as the atomic bomb people had been throwing their bombs about with pure theory!

Abbate:

I thought the Wilson government was very keen on computers.

Slater:

It was, yes. I don’t know why. I think I remember Wilson coming to Cambridge. At that time I was a Labor supporter. The secretary of the department was Robert Davis, and Harold Wilson came to visit Cambridge, and he more or less promised positions in the government if he got elected; this would be at the time of the election. Robert Davis got elected as an M.P., the first time that they sent a Labor M.P. from Cambridge since I don’t know when, and people in the Department got top jobs in the Wilson government as advisors: Kaldor; and his Hungarian friend, I think he was called Balok; and Brian Reddaway. Reddaway and Stone had been doing A Programme for Growth and getting it bigger and bigger—and as I said, the Treasury just paid for it and shelved it. But afterwards Stone got the Nobel Prize!

Abbate:

[Looking at CV:] In 1986.

Slater:

Yes, 1986. By that time it was Titan that we were using. In fact, we may even have changed over to the IBM system; I’ve just forgotten. Of course, by that time I was almost retired.

Abbate:

[Looking at CV:] You say you retired in ‘82 but became a Research Associate.

Slater:

Yes, that’s right. I was still going in and advising on things. And we had a party to celebrate the Nobel Prize, all the people who had been connected with it, who were working for Stone or under Stone’s direction. He paid a very nice compliment to me: he said I was the dea ex machina—he had been blessed with a father who studied Latin—and it meant the “goddess behind the machine.” He said to me something about how he felt that I ought to have had a share in the prize—he had it as the head of the thing; I think there was a bit of prejudice against women in that—but was there anything he could do? And I said, “Well, you can back me putting in for the Sc.D.” Turned my charm on him! [laughs.] And he said, “Oh, certainly!” So I got the Sc.D.

Now, it was very, very unusual in those days for a woman to get an Sc.D. from Cambridge. Other universities, yes. No trouble in London, but Cambridge: oh! “Women? Women don’t have brains; you can’t give them a higher degree like that!” My mother was absolutely tickled pink! Her suffragette blood was raised; oh, she was proud of it! Far prouder than I was. [Indicates photograph from degree ceremony.] I mean, there’s the gown in the photograph, but I wasn’t bothered—you know, another degree. I went to the degree ceremony, and she got all her friends from far, wide, and near, and there’s a whole row of them at the degree ceremony, cheering me on! It did please her very much. Well, I suppose it pleased me because it pleased her, but it didn’t mean anything academically, because everybody already knew me and knew what I could do and what I had done.

Abbate:

And you already had several degrees.

Slater:

That’s right. When you get to number seven, it doesn’t really matter. Except that I was a woman.

Experiences of Being a Woman

Abbate:

Did you find that as a woman, you ran into a lot of discrimination?

Slater:

At the beginning, yes. When I first came to Cambridge, there was a matriculation ceremony, I remember. Well, it wasn’t when I first came here, because I’d already been messing about for two years, but I matriculated as a research student at Girton College in October ‘51. And of course clothing coupons were still in use then, and it was very difficult to buy clothes. I had a very nice dark navy blue costume and a white blouse, but I had to wear black. I hadn’t got any black to wear! It wasn’t a colour I fancied; I only wear it if I’m going to a funeral, and even then I like a bit of white with it. Also I had navy blue shoes, and I had to have white gloves. I said, “I have no clothing coupons to buy white gloves.” They were very scarce, clothing coupons. You could do anything for clothing coupons—lose your virginity, pretty well! [laughs.] I didn’t, but I could have done! They was so scarce to get hold of in that period, even then, in ‘51. Miss Duke was the one who was in charge of the ladies in Girton who were going to be presented for the degrees at the matriculation ceremony. Now, I had navy blue clothes, navy blue shoes, navy blue costume, and a white blouse—under a black gown. No jewelry. You were allowed a wedding ring if you were married, but otherwise no jewelry, no make-up, no anything. I said, “Well, I can’t wear anything else, so either they have to let me go as I am or not let me go!” So Miss Duke swallowed her pride and let me go in the procession. It was navy blue, it didn’t show: dark navy blue, on a dull day like this in November.

Abbate:

Under a gown? How could they even have seen what color you were wearing?

Slater:

That’s right! I mean, it might just have sort of shown a little bit, or the shoes might—but nobody’s going to be looking through a magnifying glass. In fact I had dark gloves instead of white gloves. But Miss Duke said I was “letting the college down.” She didn’t say that when I was being presented for the Sc.D.! [laughs.] She had the job of doing that. And I wore something rather bright that day! It was a sort of grey with a Jacquard pattern on it; I’ve got it on in that picture there. Much brighter than it should have been! [laughs.]

To go back to the matriculation ceremony: The Girton College had a house in the town in those days for the ladies of Girton, so that they wouldn’t have to go in to common cafes, and we had to assemble at the town house, which was in that passage that goes through by the Arts Theatre to King’s Parade. We had to assemble there and then go to the Senate House for the ceremony. We assembled, and we set out; there were a lot of bicycles leaning against walls in the passage, and I don’t quite know how it happened, but the last bicycle sort of tipped over and brought a lot of other bicycles with it. So here are we, Miss Duke’s charges, on King’s Parade; and there was Miss Duke, just leaving the town house, making sure it’s locked properly, in case any men got in; and all this barricade of bicycles between her and us! [laughs.] We, being good students, walked along King’s Parade in due order and landed at the Senate House, but Miss Duke wasn’t with us, and she was our Proctor! It was unheard of for the whole college to go without the Proctor to guide them; and she got into awful trouble with the authorities, because she’d got left behind. [laughs.] Of course, I was the last one in the queue—so I won’t say who it was who just gave the bicycle a little nudge! [laughs.] Oh dear! We did have fun in those days. I suppose it was a sort of spring release factor after the war. After what had happened in the war, it didn’t matter tuppence what we did after that; we enjoyed ourselves! [laughs.]

Abbate:

And so you should have.

But among the computer people, was there any problem with being a woman, in terms of how they treated you?

Slater:

No. I will say that nobody in the Lab ever made an unwanted pass at me. Several took me out to dinner—particularly the time my Uncle Billy left me £18,000! That was a nasty business; that destroyed my faith in humanity, if anything did. He died in 1960, and he left me £18,000 in his will, which was a lot of money in those days. He had no children of his own; he’d never married. In the local newspaper, it was printed as £180,000; I don’t know who put that note in. I didn’t know what had been printed; all I knew was that a number of my gentleman friends had suddenly decided they wanted to take me out to lunch and be very nice to me; really making up to me! I thought, “Goodness, I must be using the right scent or something!” [both laugh.] Three colleges offered me fellowships: Girton, Newnham, and New Hall (we used to call it St. Trinian’s); they all wanted me to go and be Full Fellowships, as distinct from Research Fellowships. And I said—probably to Miss Edmunds; I was very friendly with Miss Edmunds, who was deputy head of Newnham at the time—”What’s going on?” And she said, “Well, we want you to buy us a hall.” It was a hall that the Americans had had, and funnily enough, it was £180,000 they were asking for it. They thought that if they gave me a Life Fellowship, or whatever they had to give, that I could buy them this hall and give it to the college. I said, “A hundred and eighty thousand? I haven’t got that sort of money!” And they said, “Oh, but it said in the newspaper!” Then it came out why I was so popular all at once! I was annoyed, I don’t mind telling you. There was only one man who’d been as he normally was with me, and I told him. He laughed and he said, “I’m still your friend, aren’t I?” I said, “Well, you were the only one who treated me normally!” [laughs.] But it did destroy my faith in human nature. I’d been doing the work; I’d been eating at Newnham. I had dining rights at Girton and Newnham, and they made me an associate or something at New Hall, because I was one of their founders—it was a research club, and then it developed into a college, a woman’s college, and I did a bit of work on developing that—and then there was Lucy Cavendish, that I also had a finger in developing from a dining club. So I had a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, and a lot of people might have been beholden to me in that sense; but I didn’t give my £180,000 to anybody, because I didn’t have it! I had £18,000. I paid to have the back of this house built out with a nice kitchen and dining room, and I bought myself a new car. I invested the rest for old age—and being an economist, I was quite good at investing money.

Abbate:

Good for you!

Slater:

Then I retired when I was sixty. I’d always been interested in family history, and since then I’ve devoted my energies to family history—particularly my mother’s family, because they are a very interesting family, the Daltons. Think of the Daltons in America: the Dalton Brothers, robbing two banks at once!

Abbate:

Is it the same family?

Slater:

The same family. And John Dalton, the atomic scientist: same bloodline. Hugh Dalton, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who got into trouble for letting out the budget secrets: same bloodline. So my mother had a very good bloodline. [laughs.]

Abbate:

Now, were you married?

Slater:

No, never. No. I had a lover, but he died in the 1960s. Well, there was a man I should have married, if he hadn’t vanished at the Blitz: the early puppy love. And after that there was another one who vanished on a convoy, John—I’ve forgot his second name, good gracious! He was Tail-end Charlie in the Naval Air Force, and he got lost on a convoy going to Murmansk in Russia. They had to take off from the ship and defend the ship against whomever was attacking it, and then try and land in Norway, and I don’t suppose he ever made it. They were never heard of again, anyhow.

Abbate:

Was this during the war?

Slater:

That was during the war, yes. And he was posted “missing, not believed killed.” So they didn’t have the knowledge that he was dead, and for a long time they gave his mother a pension, and she didn’t live very long after she’d got the pension. If I’d married him before he went, I should have had a pension to this day! [laughs.] But I said, “Oh no! Let’s wait till after the war.”

Then there was a mature lover, a man I was very fond of, in London. He had a bad heart, and I had a bad back, so our love-making attempts were more like—well, I don’t know what. We didn’t dare let ourselves go fully into the rhythm. I could get it now, probably, because my back’s a lot better now than it was then. He didn’t dare let himself go for fear of having a heart attack! It was very awkward when he did have a heart attack and died, because I couldn’t tell anybody. Not even my mother; nobody knew! Well, my Uncle Willy did; W.K., Sir William Slater. He knew the man, he knew me, he knew what was going on; but he was the only one who did.

I think that’s about it. It put me off: every man I was fond of died. And when you’ve tried three times, you think, “God didn’t intend me to get married!” [laughs.] And I couldn’t have borne children anyhow, because of my injuries. Probably they’d have fixed it today, but they didn’t bother then. They didn’t even class me as injured! And at the end of the war, there was a heck of a job getting medals for the ARP; we weren’t classed as serving in a war zone. Oh, it annoyed me, that did; and it annoyed my mother, too. We were driving around in the Blitz, being shot at, machine gunned, bombed—you name it, it happened to us—and some of us were killed, and then they didn’t want to give us defence medals! And finally, several months after the business, defence medals were handed out to those who joined before the first of January 1940, and I didn’t join until the fifth. The man who was in charge was so annoyed, and he wrote a lot of rude letters, and they finally sent me a medal, and I was so disgusted I never wore it. I thought, well, it’s not worth wearing it. It’s the defence medal—green ribbon, that is. But I thought, “That’s the limit.” So I don’t wear my medal on armistice day.

Abbate:

Did you have mentors or role models when you were starting out in computing?

Slater:

Well, I think if I had to say the one person who had the greatest effect on me in computing, it was Miss Trout. She was designing aeroplanes to fly, and doing the sums on the back of a piece of paper with a pencil and an India rubber; but she said it’s essential to do the sums if somebody’s life’s at risk—and she must have spent an awful lot of time trying to work out that the aeroplane would fly, because they did, the ones she helped to design. I thought about that: it wasn’t lives that I was risking in the economy, but [I still needed] to get the thing worked out properly and accurately. Those Schroedinger equations, they were the ones that really needed to be done, to get the atomic bombs within some kind of idea of what the thing would do. Oh, it turns you cold when you think what the hydrogen bomb could have done! I don’t know what happened to Householder, but he used to correspond with me regularly, and he would never tell me what he was doing. It was years afterwards I found out what was going on in Los Alamos! [laughs.]

Abbate:

A long time later.

Slater:Yes, a long time later. Fifty years later, probably.

Abbate:

What do you think have been the most satisfying aspects of working with computers, for you?

Slater:

They used to turn me on. It’s rather difficult to explain, but if you’re tired and you’ve been working all night, and then the computer suddenly springs to life, and the program works, and it produces what you want it to do—it’s rather like driving a fast car! If you’ve ever had a really nice car, and you’ve driven it fast: I used to have a Riley with two carburetors, and its top speed was supposed to be ninety, but I could get it up to a hundred and twenty. Why I didn’t kill myself I don’t know! And why I didn’t get run in—of course, there weren’t many police on the roads in those days; it was about 1960. That feeling. It gave me a kick. And I suppose it’s a kind of sexual thing, because the kick that you get out of trying to make love was the same sort of kick I was getting out of making the computer work. It seems awful to say you were in love with a computer! [laughs.] But it was that kind of heightened sensibility, a feeling that something had happened that was very important. Well, in all probably it wasn’t, you know; but it was to me. And that’s the only way I can express it: that running a fast, really big system, like those CDCs, and getting the satellite link to work all around the world, knowing it was the first time it had been done—it turned me on! That’s the only phrase for it.

I really got a kick out of it, quite apart from the money. I could have earned a lot more money in industry than I ever earned in the university, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t have had the freedom to do what I wanted to do. If somebody had an interesting little job and he couldn’t pay very much, I did it for him. I did quite a lot of work for agricultural economics on a very unofficial sort of basis. I had one bright student who went on to be something very senior in the Canadian government in agriculture, and he made a thesis about the most efficient dairy farm; and when he ran his thesis on the computer—it was one of these early models of efficiency, linear programming, that he was using—he got the answer, and it had a negative number of cows! At his oral, I’m one of his examiners, and I said, “How do you account for that?” And I had to give him top marks for thinking on his feet, because he said, “Well, perhaps it shouldn’t have been a dairy farm in the first place!” [laughs.] So I let him have an M. Sc. Well, it was such a good answer! He’d never noticed that it was a negative number until I pointed it out. He hadn’t read his own data and his own results—well, not from that point of view. [laughs.]

Abbate:

I guess not. [pause]

You were doing a lot of things that had never been done before.

Slater:

Yes. I did a lot of things that had never been done. My mother did a lot of things that had never been done, like fighting for women to have the right to vote. I knew she was a sick woman at the election in May ‘75 when I said, “I’ll take you to vote”—because I always took her up in the car in her old age—and she says, “No, I don’t think I’ll bother.” And I thought, “Goodness, she’s ill this time!” A car outside the door and only going around the corner of the street. She died on the 25th of May. So that was the first time she didn’t exercise her right; she’d exercised it every year since she’d got it. She was proud to exercise it, and she said to me, “Whatever you do, vote! It doesn’t matter what you vote for, but vote!”

She had a very poor opinion of men, considering that she had married one. But then she must have had a lot of people after her when he died, because she had £2,000, which was a lot of money in those days. My Uncle Billy, who wasn’t married, said it was his duty to marry the widow of his brother, and he would have married her, if she’d had him. She was hitting him with an umbrella as they were walking along, and I wondered what they were up to, because I was only nine at the time, or ten by then, perhaps. But he had read his Bible, and he felt that it was his duty. I think that’s why he left me £18,000, because he felt it was his duty; his brother couldn’t do it, so he had to do it. There is a strong religious streak in the Slater family. My father was a lay reader, and I’ve always been a member of the Church of England. I wasn’t confirmed till I was 50-something, after my mother died, because she was a non-conformist in every sense of the word, and when she worshipped, she went to whatever non-conformist church was handy. In Cambridge, she sometimes went to the Spiritualist Church, and sometimes she went to the Methodist Church, or the Congregational, which was quite near. When she was down at her bungalow, she used to go to the Happy Half-Hour at the Baptists’! So she didn’t mind where she went; the Salvation Army she always enjoyed, if there was one near. My grandfather, her father, had been a Salvation Armyist, and he was a founder of the original co-op, about 1850-something. His father and he used to go over from Oldham to Rochdale to found the co-op.

Abbate:

I’m not sure what that is.

Slater:

Oh, the Co-operative movement was a very early version of the trade union movement, and it led to the foundation of the Co-operative Wholesale Societies, where you have a dividend if you’re a member—five p. in the pound, it is now—and you spend your money there. But in those days, it sprang out of the fact that the owners of the mills paid mill workers in tokens instead of money; they had to be spent in the mill shop. My great grandfather, Thomas Dalton, was against that, as you can imagine, so they got a movement going to establish their own shop. . . . He founded that movement, his father and him and a few other people from Oldham, and it’s still a powerful movement today. There’s a Co-operative Bank, and we’re always buried by the Co-op.

[recording pauses.]

Slater:

Well, where have we got to now?

Abbate:

Oh I just had a couple more questions.

Slater:

I’m not in any hurry! [laughs.]

Abbate:

How would you say the field of computing has changed over your experience with it?

Changes in the Field

Slater:

Whew! Out of all recognition! It took me all night to calculate “e”—and then I’d got the digits back-to-front! Now, good gracious: I can go in the other room and access my cousin in Palo Alto. It’s no longer just doing sums. The thing I use it for is a word processor, mainly. I play card games on it, and I access it to see what the weather’s going to do. I could access it for all sorts of things; I don’t use it for half the things I could use it for, because I get fed up with staring at the screen. People come to me and say, “Did you see that on the television last night?” And I say, “No, I’m fed up with staring at screens! I’m not going to stare at the screen just to watch something on television.” [laughs.] You go off things like screens, particularly as you get older. I think staring at the screen’s the worst part of the modern computer now.

Abbate:

In the old days, you would work things out on paper, and then someone would punch the cards?

Slater:

Well, first it was a screen with green spots on it, an oscilloscope; and then it became punched paper tape, and then there were punch cards as well, and magnetic tapes. Then we get into disks, and hard disks, and one thing and another: little disks, and bigger disks, and CDs; all sorts of disks. But I personally get fed up with it. It was always a screen in later years. I suppose for the last thirty years it’s been screens. Before, they’d got machines that let you type things in and produce a paper tape; you could see what you were typing on the screen, so you were still staring at a screen.

Now it’s changed out of all recognition. Well, the whole world has! I mean, when I was a child and a motorcar was going past, I’d say, “Look, mummy, a motorcar!” It was a case of, “Oh look, a motorcar!” The main things were horse and cart, or steam vehicles, steam lorries; to see an aeroplane was absolutely unheard of! I can remember seeing one off Bournemouth when I was about five, and the whole promenade was staring at it! [laughs] It’s incredible! But it’s made me more static, rather than less: because in my youth, I wanted to go to America and see what it was like; now if I want to know whether it’s raining in Palo Alto, I can just have my cousin on the line. Today she said they had a shower yesterday and they probably won’t have another one until October, and I e-mailed back to say, “You can have some of ours!” [laughs.] But we don’t have earthquakes; that’s the main thing. We may have had a Blitz, but that was a one-off (we hope); but she’s got the San Andreas Fault, where they live, and I wouldn’t want to live with that hanging over me.

Some years ago, we had a get-together of all the old people who’d been on EDSAC I.

Abbate: for the 1999 anniversary?

Slater:

Yes. And Bill Gates was paying for our lunch and our dinner, so we let him! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Was he there?

Slater:

No. He said he was going to be there, and he was really angling to be made a Fellow of St. John’s, but I think the St. John’s people are a bit deaf in that ear; but they let him pay for the dinners and that, and we had a grand time. He did give us £12,000,000 towards a new computing laboratory, but he didn’t actually turn up for the 50th anniversary. I saw him on the television the other week. He was in Seattle, and they were having an earthquake, and he was talking about his latest creation for Microsoft. He was so wrapped up in Microsoft: the whole building was shaking, and everybody was diving under somewhere, and lumps were falling off the ceiling, and he’s still talking about Microsoft! Then a lump of the ceiling landed on the table by him, and he looked up: ooh, he can look harmless! He must have some brains somewhere.

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women who are thinking of entering a computer career today?

Slater:

Well, I can only say that I’ve had a long and happy life, but my circumstances were exceptional. Today, what can a woman do in a computing situation? She’s got as good a brain as a man. She can develop systems. She can think of new ways of using the systems. She can raise finance—if she can turn the full blast of her charm on people! If she’s not such a high-flown person, she’s still got plenty of opportunity to work in these answering places, where you’ve got to answer on-line requests and whatnot. Or if something’s being sold over the Internet, somebody’s got to take the order and get somebody at the warehouse to do something about it, and that’s taking in an awful lot of what you might call non-academic labor: you’ve got to be able to type and read, and that’s about it. If you can read and type reasonably accurately, you can always earn your living with a computer. If you’ve got good brains, you can earn a good living, and a good pension to follow on! [laughs]

The young lady next door has a husband and two children, but she can still earn some money because she works for Apple. I don’t quite know what she does, but she’s on the programming and systems side, and she can do it at home and have a link to wherever it is, without ever leaving the house, which is very convenient. So it enables her to earn pin money, or more than pin money, over and above what he can earn, without having to leave the house if one of the children gets ill. And children do get ill quite often; not very ill, luckily. So I would say it’s a good way of earning your living. And all women have to be prepared for a man who will drop dead on them, or run off on them; you have to be prepared to earn your living in the future, even if you think that everything is perfectly secure, as my mother did!

Final Thoughts

Abbate:

Did your parents tell you that you would have to earn a living? Did you grow up believing that you would have to earn a living?

Slater:

Well, nobody mentioned it until my father died. But I was sufficiently intelligent to know that his salary had died with him and there was a great shortage of money, and that my mother had to go back to teach at the school. That was very fortunate, because if she hadn’t been able to get a job as a teacher, there was very little work that she could have done that would have coincided with me going to school and having school holidays and whatnot. It seems essential to me that when a woman gets married, she looks on it as a temporary situation and not a for-life situation that’s going to provide her with a rain check. That would be my advice. Because even today, men step under buses, and have heart attacks, and run off with other women. You can’t trust a man: that’s the sum total of my experience!

Abbate:

[laughs.] Economically speaking.

Slater:

Take my father: he was perfectly trustworthy, as far as bringing me up. “Oh yes,” he’d have said, “I’ll bring her up.” He was high up his career, there was absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t have been able to bring me up and see me graduate and all that—but he couldn’t. Perhaps he did in spirit, but not in life.

I suppose that’s given me a rather strange attitude to life, that I’m always thinking, “Tomorrow’s the day that never comes.” He was going to do something tomorrow, but he never did it. I tend to live in that situation, that tomorrow’s the day that never comes, and I try to finish up what I’m doing today and get it out of the way, if possible. But I don’t stay up all night doing it now! I go to bed at ten o’clock.

Abbate:

Making up for all those years of long nights.

Slater:

Well, I had what looked like a heart attack in retrospect, twenty years ago, and I retired; I could have gone on another seven years. Then I did have a real heart attack that resulted in me being rushed into Addinbrookes ten years ago, and so I try to take things easily. Physically, I’ve had to take things easily all my life; things like running and playing tennis and playing games in general were not open to me, because my back would give way if I just tried it. But I go swimming; that’s about the only thing that specialists tell me I can do in freedom, so I can still swim a hundred meters, two or three times a week. That’s what I’d be doing now if I weren’t talking to you!

Physically and mentally, I’m still active, whereas most of my compatriots have gone the way of all flesh. Whether they’re active in some heavenly computing room, I wouldn’t like to say! [laughs.] Some of those men died very early. They must have been under great stress. . . . Being a computer engineer in the early days must have been very stressful, because they all seem to have had heart attacks!

Abbate:

Interesting.

Slater:

Well, it is a stress-related thing, yes. But with me, it’s in my father’s family, the heart attacks. I did some computing for the Medical Research Council: when I got the regression formula going, they wanted to use it, and one of the jobs we did was scouting out causes of heart attacks. About 1960 this was, using data from patients at Addinbrookes. And it surprised me; I looked at the causes of heart attacks, and I thought, “Goodness! I’m in the high-risk group!” I’ve always been a bit overweight, because I’m not physically very active and my mother’s family were all very fat. I didn’t smoke; that was that about the only good thing in the whole lot. I thought, “I’d better take myself in hand and try and sort things out!” So I didn’t need a heart specialist to tell me to avoid animal fat and salt and to avoid stimulants like strong coffee. That’s why I’m still here, because I did what the doctors told me to do.

I’m now under Doctor Shapiro, who is the great heart specialist. He went off into roars of laughter: he put my heart through his fancy machine, and he said, “You know what’s wrong with your heart?” And I said, “No.” He said, “It’s your computer that’s gone wrong!” The bundle of His is the heart’s computer, and I have a bit of dead muscle in the bundle of His, so that every so often, my heart might go into atrial fibrillation. I stress atrial, because if it was ventricle I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you—I’d be dead!