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Oral-History:Margaret Marrs

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Margaret Marrs was born in 1929 and grew up in a small village named Simonstone in Lancashire, England. She earned a scholarship to Girton College at Cambridge University, studied math, and then graduated in 1951. Marrs’s computing career began in 1952 with Ferranti Computing Systems, but she spent most of her professional career with universities.  
 
Margaret Marrs was born in 1929 and grew up in a small village named Simonstone in Lancashire, England. She earned a scholarship to Girton College at Cambridge University, studied math, and then graduated in 1951. Marrs’s computing career began in 1952 with Ferranti Computing Systems, but she spent most of her professional career with universities.  
  
In this interview, Marrs reflects on her career in computing. She discusses her familiarity with different computer programming languages and her various positions at Ferranti, Cambridge University and Norwich University. She also explains how the pay disparity between male and female affected her career choices. The most endearing pieces of this interview lie in her discussion of on her experiences balancing husband & wife relationships in the workpla
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In this interview, Marrs reflects on her career in computing. She discusses her familiarity with different computer programming languages and her various positions at Ferranti, Cambridge University and Norwich University. She also explains how the pay disparity between male and female affected her career choices. As she worked with her husband, She also discusses balancing marriage relationships in the workplace.
  
 
== About the Interview  ==
 
== About the Interview  ==

Revision as of 19:10, 19 September 2012

Contents

About Margaret Marrs

Margaret Marrs was born in 1929 and grew up in a small village named Simonstone in Lancashire, England. She earned a scholarship to Girton College at Cambridge University, studied math, and then graduated in 1951. Marrs’s computing career began in 1952 with Ferranti Computing Systems, but she spent most of her professional career with universities.

In this interview, Marrs reflects on her career in computing. She discusses her familiarity with different computer programming languages and her various positions at Ferranti, Cambridge University and Norwich University. She also explains how the pay disparity between male and female affected her career choices. As she worked with her husband, She also discusses balancing marriage relationships in the workplace.

About the Interview

MARGARET MARRS: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 9 April 2001.

Interview #610 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:

Margaret Marrs, an oral history conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Margaret Marrs

INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate

DATE: 9 April 2001

PLACE: Margaret Marrs’s house in Cambridge, UK

Background and Education

Abbate: Just to begin at the beginning, when were you born?

Marrs: I was born in 1929.

Abbate:

And where did you grow up?

Marrs:

In Lancashire. I don’t know whether you will get that far [on your research trip]. Well, I lived in a village called Simonstone, which was in the Burnley area, and went to the local school, which was a church school in those days; and then I went to the grammar school in Clitheroe, which was a country town, and the boroughs roundabout—Blackburn, Accrington, and Burnley—have their own grammar schools, which were mainly pupils from the borough, although they did take occasional people from the country areas; and Clitheroe took the rest, as it were.

So it was a nice atmosphere to grow up in, actually; we were so free, and so on. Lovely countryside roundabout. It was the part of industrial Lancashire where there was cotton and coal, and particularly the cotton was concentrated around the rivers—that was why it was there. Everybody thinks of industrial Lancashire, but it wasn’t like that at all; you had these little towns all the way along the river, and then up the sides of the hills, and you only needed to go fifty yards and you were in the open country. A very, very attractive part to be . . .

And then from there, I was lucky to get a scholarship to Girton [College] at Cambridge, and came up here for a very happy three years.

Abbate:

So, the grammar schools you went to: Were they just girls-only, or were they mixed?

Marrs:

That was girls, only. Well, we shared a building with the boys, but the boys were that side, and the girls were this side, and there wasn’t . . . There weren’t joint lessons until the sixth form; I don’t know what was the policy behind it, but certainly maths and science were, in the sixth form, done both together. One year it would be in the girls—well, the maths: one year it was done by the maths teacher in the girls’ school, who took that group right the way through to school-leaving exams, and the other year it was in the boys’ school. But the science labs were in the boys’ school, and I don’t think we had—not proper science teachers—so the girls that wanted to do science, which were only really people going in for medicine, or very little of this . . . I didn’t do science. I did maths, Latin, and French were my A Level subjects—well, the two maths: pure and applied maths.

Abbate:

So were you interested in math from an early age?

Marrs:

Well, I had a knack, I suppose! [laughs.] I think it ran in the family for a very long time. My father’s family were farmers, but the ones that weren’t farmers—the younger sons—tended to be engineers, ships’ engineers, because they lived in the Isle of Mann; so of course there’s a lot of shipping around there, and a lot of engineers in the family—the ones that weren’t farming. So I suppose it’s inbred from a long time back. My father was in the bank, so he was used to numbers, and money, and things like that.

Abbate:

What did your mother’s family do?

Marrs:

They came from Wigan in Lancashire, and in fact her father was an engineer as well; but I think they were sort of clerks and that type of people. I’ve been doing family history since I retired, and I didn’t find out a lot about her. My father’s I’ve gotten right the way back, but my mother’s is just this little corner with a few people, and I don’t even know one great-great-grandfather on her side, and another great-great-grandfather—I’ve gotten into communication with cousins in Australia, and we argue about his man, because I’ve got a birth in 17—something about 1780; it doesn’t matter when—and a man died with this same name in about 1830-ish, and I think he was the one that got married in 1826 and had the family, but Australian Mary says, “Oh, no, he’s too old for that! There must’ve been one in between!” But I haven’t found reference to one in between, so he may have married late and had a family, and that’s why he died? I don’t know . . .

But they were, well, like office people. One of her uncles was a painter and decorator, and her father’s the same as an engineer. One went off to Australia, we discovered, and he ran a business, which still carries the family name, in Queensland, and that was a sort of builders’ merchants and everything like that, so he was that sort of a person.

But my parents met in the bank; my mother was in the bank as well! [laughs.] So we’ve always had voluntary jobs as treasurers. [both laugh.]

Abbate:

Did you have brothers and sisters?

Marrs:

Yes, I was the eldest, and two brothers in the middle, and then my sister. I always tell people—it’s a bit of a conversation-stopper: “My father was a very liberal man. He sent his two daughters to university, but neither of his sons!” Which was just the way things worked in that stage; my next brother to me wanted to go in for surveying, that sort of work, and what happened in those days was that my father paid a fee, and he was “articled,” I think, is the term of it.

Abbate:

A sort of apprentice?

Marrs:

A sort of apprenticeship, but I think apprentices got wages; this is slightly different, So he was in the local town hall, so he had a wide coverage of the things, and he stayed in that.

My next brother always want to . . . Well, when he was a lad, he wanted to be a train driver, but I think most boys did! But anyway, he wanted to be an engineer, and he went as an apprentice to English Electric in Liverpool, so he did that sort of engineering.

And then my sister was like me. She did specialize in sciences; I think she did maths, physics, and—whether it was chemistry or what her other subject would be—in the sixth form, and she went to Liverpool University; and she ended up in computing as well. I don’t know whether you will talk to her, but the way she got in [to computing] was unusual. By the time she was at university, I was married in Cambridge, and we had somebody in our department—Dr. Miller, Jeff Miller—Lucy Slater may have mentioned him this morning, I don’t know. He was a great table maker—I mean, mathematical tables—and at this particular time, there was a second edition of a book called . . . was it Dictionary of Mathematical Tables? Anyway, there was this book coming out. There’d been an early edition; it was Fletcher, Miller, and Rosenhead were the author. And Dr. Miller could always find jobs for people in the summer vacations, and in those days money was a bit easier as well; he had various grants that he could tap to pay for these people. So we had various people—sometimes school, like sixth-formers, in the summer holidays, or university people. There was one girl who was junior operator when first I came to the Maths Lab, and she was trying to do a degree at night school, and I think after one year, she decided it was too heavy going; it was one day and four nights a week, classes. And so she went to university.

So she was home in the summer, so she would come, she’d have a vacation job; and my sister was at the university, so we asked Dr. Miller. “Oh, yes, yes, he’d got something for her”—and, as I say, he was doing this second edition of his handbook to mathematical tables, and it was all at proof stage, but there was a vast amount of checking to be done, so [my sister] Helen had the job of this. Well, it was all on cards, like this, written on cards what the reference was, and Helen had to go to the libraries and check these references. I don’t know whether she did that for a couple of years, I can’t remember; but she certainly did that as a vacation job. And then when she came to leave university, this book hadn’t gone to press yet, and she was more or less obliged to go—under an obligation, in a way—to go, at Dr. Miller’s request, to Scientific Computing Services in London, who were the publishers of this book, and see it through. So that was her start in computing. But I was already in.

My way was—well, I didn’t know about computers; nobody did, at the time that I was at the university—and my third year, we had a very good appointments board in Cambridge, and Mrs. Baxter at the appointments board used to suggest various jobs for people. You started looking around for something. Some people, they knew what they wanted—teaching was all straightforward; scientific civil service was pretty straightforward—some people would apply. I didn’t know.

Entering the Workforce

Abbate:

And you were doing a degree in . . . ?

Marrs:

I was doing a degree in maths, yes.

And she sent me first—and I assume, really, that she knew these welfare officers in these different big firms—I was sent up to Thomas Hedley’s in Newcastle for an interview. That was market research that they did. Well, it wasn’t my line at all! But this Miss—now I’ve forgotten the name—anyway, this lady at Thomas Hedley’s . . . I have the feeling, in a way, that it was Mrs. Baxter’s way of getting you used to going for an interview, because that was the first one, and I think this lady sensed that market research wasn’t my idea. But they also had a statistics department. They didn’t have any vacancies at the time, but it was a case of, “Well, one might turn up and we’ll bear you in mind.” Well then, later on, a friend of mine had been to MetroVicks [The Metropolitan Vickers Company] in Manchester. That’s a very big engineering firm; I don’t know that it’s still bearing that name now; it was one of the very big ones who took apprentices and graduate apprentices. She was very impressed with it, but as she was planning to get married within two years, or something like that, she wouldn’t have seen an apprenticeship through. So I spoke to Mrs. Baxter about that, and she arranged an interview. And then, somebody I was talking to in Cambridge was talking about Ferranti’s. They had colloquiums in the Maths Lab at this time, these fortnightly colloquiums on Thursday afternoons—I’ll always remember that—and this acquaintance suggested I should go to one of these colloquiums that was being given by a Brian Pollard, who was one of the Ferranti people, and have a chat with him. So I did this. I didn’t understand a word of what he was talking about—it was all the electronic side of things—but I had a word with him, and he said the best thing was to get in touch with—Miss Graham, I think it was, who was the women’s welfare officer.

So Mrs. Baxter did this—she organized these two interviews—and I went there, and went up to Ferranti’s. I got there late for my interview, which was a very bad start, but I think they expected this, because it was something like a twenty-minute bus service, and you always just missed one bus! [laughs.] It was a Dr. Bowden who was in charge of this department, and he reckoned he didn’t know much about it. The way he talked was, “I’m told that if you like doing crosswords, you’ll like this!” Anyway, I was offered a job there. I think I was offered the job at MetroVicks as well, but it wasn’t quite what I had expected. Anyway, this Ferranti’s sounded quite passable, so I went there.

They were very small in those days. I was certainly the juniorest in that department. There were three of us started the same autumn, and one of them—she’s on this list [of people who used the Mark I]—one of them had done a few years teaching, and the other one [Mary Lee Berners-Lee] had done research in Australia in—I think it was astronomy, was her subject—and come back; so they were ahead of me, and otherwise it was really quite senior staff. Girl called Audrey—Audrey Bates she was then—she’d done an M. Sc. at Manchester University in computing, so she’d drifted into it.

Well, the following year, I wrote to Mrs. Baxter to say how I was getting on, and I was enjoying the work, “and they’re still taking on people, if there’s anybody else interested”—because they were—people didn’t leave; people were still coming in. And I just . . . It was one of these funny things: I ended the letter, “Of course, Manchester isn’t the same as Cambridge,” and I had a letter back from her, and she said, “Actually there is a job going in Cambridge at the moment.” Well, I didn’t particularly want to leave; I was quite happy where I was! And I’d got various colleagues, and one in particular, who I’m still in touch with, said—well, he said, “I have a friend there.” He said, “You can inquire from him without any obligation”—and it was Eric Mutch, who was kind of a manager at the time—”and just have an informal chat about it.” So I wrote; and by return [post], I had a phone call: Could I go for interview that Saturday? Sort of flung right in! So I said, “There’s no reason why I shouldn’t.” So I did, and I went for this interview, and I was offered the job! I mean, it came as a great surprise; I wasn’t looking for another job or anything! And I was very embarrassed, because I hadn’t said anything at work; it had all come out of the blue, and I remember I went up—no, I won’t say any more about this. Anyway, I got the job.

Abbate:

When was this?

Marrs:

This was 1952. It was 1951 I finished at University, so I had just a year in Manchester.

Abbate:

What did you actually do for Ferranti?

Marrs:

I was a computer programmer. We did computer programming. I don’t know if—You won’t know anything about that; it was all done effectively in binary! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Was this with punch cards, or tape, or . . . ?

Marrs:

It was paper tape in those days. And we had coding sheets, and they had . . . I can’t remember much of it, but this tells you it. It’s called “Stroke E,” is the club [of people who worked on the computer]. The sheets were 32 lines [draws picture of coding sheet], and then four boxes across, and the addresses were /, E, @, A, and so on. I think they’re related to the ASCII codes, or something like that—teleprinter codes. And in theory, it had 32 by 32—did it have 32 by 32, the store? Possibly; I don’t know. Anyway, these characters represented five bits, and we programmed, and the instructions were like: “colon, colon @”—might have been “@”—I can’t remember what the instructions were now. So we coded like that; it was at that level of stuff.

Well, first of all, we had to get to know it. [laughs.] In fact the first job we were given: This Dr. Bowden who had interviewed me had written one of the early books, Faster Than Thought, about computers as he saw it at that stage; and Betty and I, who’d started a month before Mary, we were given the job of reading this and proofreading and so on, so we got to know a bit about that. Then we were sent on a course up to Cambridge. Cambridge did this summer school every autumn—I think they got the idea from MIT—and it was a fortnight in September. So we learnt the Cambridge machine code there, but it helped having had a week [at Ferranti] before we’d gone. Then when we came back, it helped very much having that [course].

We were given projects: Betty was given something connected with payroll and income tax, and I—I suppose because I had come from a maths background—was given a differential equations project, for one of the government departments

Abbate:

Ferranti had in-house programmers doing programming for their clients?

Marrs:

Yes, that’s right; yes. And of course, in those days, there were hardly any clients! [both laugh.]

The man that I worked for—worked with, put it that way; he was senior to me—he had done a job for the Shirley Institute in Manchester before I went; that was a cotton manufacturer, and he had done this, but we were doing this. There was a paper published in the late 1940s, I suppose it was, by Stan Gill, and Stan had adapted the Runge-Kutta method of solving differential equations for automatic computers. You started with your equations and initial values, and you progressed everything on by one step. It was very easily adapted for computers. So Cyril [Veinott] and I were really doing that. Thirty-nine differential equations—some quite big number, anyway—was the project that we were on. Well, that was the whole year! [laughs.] We were still doing it at the end of the year. But it was early days of computers as well, so of course we had a lot of hardware troubles. We didn’t have our own at that stage; we used to use the computer at Manchester University. I don’t know whether you’re meeting anybody from up there?

Abbate:

Yes, I’m going there next.

Marrs:

Ah! Are you? And will you see people who are still there, or people who have been there?

Abbate:

I’m not sure. I don’t actually have a lot of people lined up. I’m going to go to the archive first and talk to the historians, but I’m coming back to Manchester.

Marrs:

Oh yes, yes.

Abbate:

Is there anyone in particular you recommend I see?

Marrs:

Well, these people. [Indicates list of Mark 1 people.] We can have a look at that afterwards.

Marrs:

What was I saying? Oh yes. One of the funny things I was just thinking the other day about: My house is nearly weighed down with scrap paper, because when you work with computers, you get lots of scrap paper, and . . .

Abbate:

I noticed you’re using punch cards as . . .

Marrs:

I’m not using them as computer; I’m using them . . . My husband—my second husband—was blind, and we did family history, and he dealt with this by brailling all his stuff on cards. Well, when he died, in a lot of cases that was the only stuff, and I thought, “Well, I can’t just throw that away!” So I’m transcribing, and I’m using cards in parallel with his; so I transcribe the braille to this [punch card], and then I check it, and then I type it up on there, and a deck of about 50 cards is one page of A-4. [laughs.] It’s sad, really!

Working with EDSAC and Titan

Marrs:

So, what were we saying? We were talking about this Manchester computer—oh, and this scrap paper. I think this first day, probably when I came back from Cambridge and I was on this project, I was given four pieces of paper—and that was sort of very precious! We didn’t have scrap paper or anything like that. So you wrote little, and you wrote on both sides. But once we got started on a computer: never short of paper; never, ever again! [both laugh.]

We had the use of the Manchester University’s computer on Mondays, and I think the University was very cunning about that, because the machine had been switched off over the weekend, so it always took several hours to get it up and running on the Monday morning! [laughs.] So you didn’t go at half-past eight or nine; you knew very well it wouldn’t be up by then; but you’d roll along at about ten, and sometimes it was early the afternoon when it going. Sometimes it didn’t get going at all. And then as time went on, we were working into the night, and even overnight. Very unpleasant, that was! But it was the way of getting in.

I don’t know what the arrangement was. You know the machine was developed at Manchester University and Ferranti’s developed it commercially, so it was the first commercial computer. But then, this Dr. Bowden: His job was to go around the world and sell, market these computers. So I think his was probably rather a forlorn job as well! He had a lovely story one time he told us about going over to America, to try and sell these computers, and wondering how he was going to get on. I think he was on the Queen Mary. Anyway, he didn’t feel so bad about it, when he met a man who was going over to try and sell lighthouses! [laughs.]

But they did sell a number of those Mark 1, and then they—after I—well, I think they were developing the Mark 1* while I was there; I’m not sure—but anyway, they sold quite a lot of those. And then of course they became absorbed into ICL. But . . . I was only there for one year, but it wasn’t my intention that way.

But then I came to Cambridge, and I was very happy there. I was employed as senior operator, but they knew I’d had programming experience, so right from the start I got involved in programming, and helping people, and so on. Cambridge people were mostly research people, staff or students, and they were expected to do their own programming, right from the start. We ran courses—probably only at the beginning of the academic year, then. But they always produced their own literature, anyway. Well, it was a unique computer; they had to. And people learnt from that, and I suppose with help from their colleagues, and help from staff. As I say, I was senior operator, and the girl who went to Leeds University after one year was the junior operator, and we had to run this thing.

Have you seen the EDSAC film? There is an EDSAC film.

Abbate:

I don’t believe so. I’ve seen pictures, but I don’t think I’ve seen a film.

Marrs:

Well, that [computer] was on paper tape as well, and they actually ran a physical queue there. They had—I think it was treasury tags—no, not treasury tags: crop clips hanging up on nails on the wall, and you came along with a little plastic bag with your paper tape rolled up and your instructions to the operator about: “Load program, press start, and at the first pause insert tape one, and then go back to this original tape, at the second stop insert tape two,” and things like that: all written instructions. [You would use the first empty clip to hang your bag up on the wall and thus claim a place in the queue.] And they had very slow teleprinter for the output. And that was it. And the operator had to work this, and understand people’s hieroglyphics—you got used to them—and put the results in a rack with little—like a letter rack. I can’t remember now where the results used to go. Isn’t it funny? You might see that if you do see the film.

Abbate:

I’ve seen pictures of people queued up.

Marrs:

Oh, that was the next computer. Actually, this EDSAC I: we worked the working hours, and it was left on in the evenings, and senior research students—there was a list of people who were allowed to be left in charge of it, and they tended to be research students on big projects, that just had to sit and watch the machine while it slogged its way through their programs. And also, this Celia [the junior operator?] was at classes one day [a week], and one had to fit in lunch time, so you would go round these people and see would they like—they saw it as an hour and a quarter on the machine that they had in the daytime; they didn’t have to stay at night—and you’d find somebody to take over the machine. Or people would come and ask, “Is the machine free tomorrow lunch time? Can I have it?” It was all done pretty informally, but it worked pretty well, in those days.

And then they replaced it by EDSAC II, which was one of the nicest machine codes I think one could wish for. It was devised by David Wheeler, whose name you’ve probably come across, and they’d learnt, from their experience of the EDSAC I, what people wanted, and it was really quite simple to use, and very versatile. And that was the one that people actually queued and put their own—fed their own things in. I think that developed at some stage; I don’t know whether it was always like that, I really can’t remember, but I know there was this actual physical queue of people. [laughs.] And that photograph with somebody feeding stuff in [is of the EDSAC II user queue].

They developed their peripherals then. They were developing them, of course, on EDSAC I, because they had magnetic tape going as well—these large magnetic tapes—and it was an open thing, quite tall, about the size of a door; and it had two spools of the magnetic tape, and it was open to the elements, and it spun. That, of course, was slow, because you had to store everything serially. So that was developed.

EDSAC II, they developed—they used a Hollerith printer. Don’t know whether you know the Hollerith printer. Power Samas, it would probably be—no, IBM? I don’t know. . . But it was this 132 characters wide—120 or 132 characters wide, I’m not sure which—and it printed a whole line at once; but it was this great mechanical thing, and all these 132 arms came up to the appropriate place and then a terrific crash as it printed—really noisy! But it speeded up on the old teleprinter thing. At Ferranti’s, it [the output] certainly came out straight onto a teleprinter, but I think by the time I got to Cambridge, it came out on paper tape, and then was fed through a teleprinter. So there was this delay between the two machines; but at any rate, it came out the speed of these old post office teletypes, which speeded up.

But everything was done on punch tape in Cambridge, while I was there. And then of course they went on to Titan, the version of the Atlas—the scaled-down Atlas, because whoever funded it didn’t have the money for an Atlas!

Abbate:

That was in the sixties? When was Titan?

Marrs:

That was in the sixties, yes.

Abbate:

You were also doing programming at this time?

Marrs:

Yes, oh yes. I did programming at Cambridge all the time. It tended to be subroutines and things like that, because again—well, we had the occasional jobs brought in from outside, and they were glad of those; but they had to be very careful about those, because they couldn’t guarantee anything. They couldn’t guarantee turnaround, or completion of the jobs, because it was: if the machine packed up, the machine packed up, and that was it! There wasn’t another one that you could use as a spare. [laughs.] So there wasn’t a lot of this that was taken on, but I would be one of the people who was delegated these jobs to do.

Abbate:

What were some of the more interesting things you had to do? Or did you develop techniques that were particularly satisfying?

Marrs:

I enjoyed doing printing things: layouts of printing, and so on. I think it sort of appealed to my mind. And when my second husband—when Robert came—he was blind, and he came from Worcester College for the Blind, because he had shown an interest in computers due to one of his colleagues at school. Apparently this lad went to Metal Box Company in Worcester for a vacation job, and came back and told his friends his about it, and Robert thought, Oh, that sounded interesting. So the RNIB—Royal National Institute for the Blind—contacted Eric [Mutch], my husband, and [asked], “Any chance of this lad being trained as a computer operator?” Well, it was all too visual, as I’ve said about that, and I wrote back and said, Well, it was too visual; I couldn’t see any way about that; but how about us having a go at teaching him programming? So I was the one who was deputed to keep an eye on him. He had to go to these postgraduate courses, because they were the only ones, and Eric taped the textbook onto magnetic tape—onto Robert’s tape recorder—and he worked through, and I had to make sure that he didn’t get left behind. Anyway, he took to it, and he got various little jobs, and they tended to be tabulating stuff. So we had my training, and we got it all beautifully tabulated. Well, in the end, he went to the school of agriculture; he was taken on by them; and this was invaluable, because most of their work was tabulated. Well, you can’t do what you want with [software] packages; you’re working within their constraints. But I’d trained him to do this in machine code, so that he could go into machine code and do this stuff. I found that fun as well.

It’s not all that long ago that we were on holiday in Holland with some friends, and then Pat, who we stayed with: her mother was over there, and she’s quite elderly, and Robert, because he was blind, he couldn’t enter into everything, and he was deputed to entertain grandma—chat to grandma. I mean, Grandma was a chatterbox, and she needed somebody to talk at! So his job was to go and sit and listen to her. And she came, and she was most intrigued: she’d been talking to Robert, and she found he enjoyed his work! “Well,” I said, “So what? I enjoyed mine!” And it was almost as if it hadn’t occurred to her—people worked to earn their money, but they didn’t necessarily enjoy what they were doing. I said, “I spent my whole career getting paid for doing puzzles all day!” [both laugh.] I said, “What more can anybody ask?” [laughs.] And in a way, that’s how I saw it: I always enjoyed it!

Abbate:

When you had a programming task to do, were you sometimes figuring out, sort of for the first time, how to do that particular thing?

Marrs:

Oh, yes, yes. But it tended to be mathematical stuff. I did very little systems. It was only when they got Titan that I did some systems work, and the way of tackling it was done at a higher level. In fact, Karen [Spärk-Jones’s] husband was one of the people—Roger Needham—he was one of the people that devised this. I mean, they saw the project as a whole, and little bits were farmed out to different people. By that time, they had quite a large staff, and there was quite a lot of helping the users as well, by then, because you got vast numbers of users. In the early days it had been quite small.

And then I left there in 1969 and went to the engineering department, where they had their own computer, and that was a great deal of helping the students. They had the very, very complicated projects that tended to be—I think you’d call it parameter fitting—where you have more equations than you have variables, so you’ve got to get a best fit. And they were really quite complicated things. There was one chap who I was sort of pushed onto straight away who was doing an economics—a model of the economy—and making very heavy weather of it, and [they said] “See if you can’t help him push that along; it’s about time he submitted his Ph.D.!” [laughs.] And there was another one who had a similar one; he was perfectly competent, but I was to help him as well, and encourage him; and his was quite a lot of these equations, and I learned—I mean, this was a topic I didn’t know anything about at all!

By this time it was the mid-fifties. It was University grants—Science Research Council, I think it was, that gave our grants—they were only giving a grant for a year at a time; so here were we staggering on—“Have a grant for another year”—and you didn’t know whether you’d be there more than twelve months. Well, it’s very demoralizing, and in the end we had a new professor, and I think they took this as an opportunity to say, “We want the senior people out and new people at the bottom of the pay scale; save money that way.” So there were six of us—I think it was this chap’s second day at work, and he had to have six of us in and tell us the grant wasn’t going to be renewed!

Abbate:

This was when you were at the Computer Lab?

Marrs:

No, this was in Control Engineering. Yes. So I was there for about six years.

Abbate:

I think I’ve got the chronology. So you were at the computing lab until 1969, and then . . .

Marrs:

Yes, and then Control Engineering . . .

Abbate:

So it was the mid-seventies when you left.

Marrs:

So yes, 1975 I think it was when I left.

And so, there were these six of us faced with looking for work, and I didn’t want to leave Cambridge. Some of the other people didn’t mind so much, and sort of scattered here, there. One of my colleagues had this file of—I think it was 105 job applications that he put in, and he hadn’t got a single job, and I think that most of them haven’t been acknowledged even!

Abbate:

Really!

Life and Work at Norwich

Marrs:

Mine was by personal contact, really. I was ringing round departments in Cambridge to see if they had anything. I’d applied for one, which was Nottingham-ish; it wasn’t a university job, and that was another that was never acknowledged; and I ended up with two possibilities. One was at the seed testing station up Huntington Road, which was basically a civil service–type job; and the other was in local exams, where they mark exams for all over the world—vast data handling. And, well, what happened was: I think my pay at the time was about 5000, and this seed testing, they offered me 3000 a year, and the local exams offered me 4000 a year. So which did I do? It was local exams!

And it was an experience there, I must say. It was programming in COBOL, which of course you don’t come across in an academic environment really, but they had these vast things, and we were busy all the time. They were getting a new IBM computer, so ahead of this they’d got all their changes to the instructions of the COBOL, and how the COBOL worked—and most of it was the packing of data on magnetic tape—so that this enormous package of programs of theirs all had to be gone through, and converted for this new version of FORTRAN [for the IBM]. But at one stage something came in, which was a new suite of programs, so we were given one each, so at least we had something new to do; and then there was another one came in where it was machine-code programming, and again, we were given one of each, so we had that. But most of that time was updating these programs for the new [machine].

Well, they had subjects, you see, that they were marked, and they had rules for working out which grade the students were in, so those had to be changed from time to time. Suppose you start off with grades A to E, where E is the failure. This particular thing, I think the grades were changing from A to F, so they were different, and E and F were failures—something like that, anyway—so all the programs had to be changed like that. It was quite a big job, but a little bit soul-destroying. [both laugh.]

I mean it was rather depressing altogether, and it got to the following Easter—I’d been there eight, eight or nine months, and ah! it was awful. And I thought, “Oh, I must look for something else.” It was kind of a protest that I was looking at their computing press, and there were quite a lot of jobs at the time. This was ‘76 now; there were these new universities, and they were advertising for staff. And one particular week—I think when I was cross about something or other—there was a job at Liverpool; a job at Salford, I think; a job somewhere else; and one at Norwich—and I thought, “Well now, Norwich wouldn’t be too bad!” And I applied for this job. As I say, it was a protest; I didn’t expect anything to happen. What was I, by this stage, 45, 46? You don’t expect to get jobs at that age. And I was sent for for interview! Well, I nearly didn’t go, because I was away on holiday, and I thought, “Well, it’s a bit silly; having gotten this far, I ought to go”—and much to my surprise, I was offered the job. And it turned out—I only knew this after I got there—that this particular year, these new universities had suddenly been given another boost financially to take on new staff. And the year before they had taken on three people straight from university, so this particular year they were hoping to get somebody with more experience, and I just turned up at the right time. So I ended there, and it was the first time I’ve ever used a commercially available computer! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Really!

Marrs:

Actually that’s not quite, quite right, because the one that they had at Control Engineering was an . . . was it Elliot or ICL? I’ve forgotten now—but it was modified, because it had analog facilities attached as well. So that was actually something different in the programming side as well, because you have data coming in from this analog machine, and you have to pick it up at the right time—so there was timing came into your programs there, as well.

Abbate:

How did you do that?

Marrs:

You had to wait, and things like that. These were extra instructions. So it was a one-off computer yet again.

Abbate:

And then what did the educational testing . . . ?

Marrs:

Oh, that was an IBM, an IBM—I forget now—was it a 350 or 360? Changing to 360, or 360 changing to 370? Anyway, they were upping; actually, whilst I was there they did this. That went perfectly smoothly, doing that changeover, anyway.

So at Norwich my title was Programming Advisor. It was so funny: I started there on the first of July, and it was a Thursday—so I kept the house here, because I thought, “I’m only filling in time till jobs get better in Cambridge”—and I went over there, and I stayed on the university campus over Thursday night, and went in, stayed the night, came back on Friday. And I met somebody, and she said, “How are you getting on? I know your job’s very difficult.” I said, “I walked into that place and I felt I’d always been there, right from day one!” I was so comfortable about it and everything, and I was, as I said, Programming Advisor. I’d never programmed this particular computer before, this ICL, so I was given all the documentation to do. Although it was standard programming language; they used FORTRAN a lot in scientific circles.

Abbate:

What other language did they use on the ICL?

Marrs:

I’m just trying to remember where I did ALGOL. ALGOL was at the Control Engineering. So ICL—I’m trying to think—I don’t think I did any machine code at Norwich; I can’t remember now. But there they used a lot of packages, statistical packages. SPSS I had to find out about before I went there: “Statistical Program for Social Scientists,” I think it was.

And it was something of a revelation going there; I think if you got an answer, that was all that was required. It didn’t necessarily have to be the right one! [laughs.] Whereas when I’d been... And my second husband was the same: He liked to check his work, that it was right; but the person who directed him was more concerned with getting on with the next job, and this upset him, like it would have upset me. But there, we had an advisory desk, so we had our times that we had to sit at this advisory desk. And there was a lot of doing documentation there—they did their own documentation—and the sort of thing was helping people in laymen’s terms . . .

[TAPE 1, SIDE 2]

Abbate:

Let’s see: You’d gotten the job at Norwich . . .

Marrs:

. . . and it was this Programming Advisor, was the job.

Abbate:

Right.

Marrs:

And, as I say, when I went there, we had all these vast volumes of books on the ICL computer; and the relevant bits, you might say, the relevant bits had to be taken out and put into what were called Programming Notes for their users; and most of the work there was actually running courses. I learned BASIC while I was at Norwich, that was quite widely used; and FORTRAN—different versions of FORTRAN; and there was a lot of doing this documentation. As I say, I think four sessions a week, four to five sessions a week, at the advisory desk, where you just sat at this desk, and people knew that there was somebody there to answer their problems, whatever they were.

And I was telling somebody just the other day about—I told you about my first two days there, and how I felt at home right from the start. Well, I was given this documentation to read, to find out—because it was all new to me, although I’d done programming—and the immediate boss was the one who organized this rota on the advisory desk. And I think it was at the end of the second week, the second Friday; but it was fairly early on: I’d read quite a bit, and somebody was away that day, and I said to Altman [sp?], “Can I do a session on the desk?” “Oh!” [gasps theatrically.] He thought it was a bit too soon, I hadn’t been there long enough, really! But anyway, he agreed in the end that I could do this session; so I was on the desk, and Liz, one of the other advisors, was to sit at the other side of the room in case I got into deep water. And the first customer came along, and his program hadn’t worked, and he said, “It worked yesterday, and I’ve only changed one instruction!” [laughs.] And the second customer came along, and he’d got this program—his friend had given it to him, and it had worked, but he couldn’t get it work. And I thought, “This is where I came in.” I thought, “I’ve been answering questions like this all my career!” [laughs.] And it didn’t matter that it was a different computer, because you say, “What did you do?” and you narrow it down to “What did you change?” So it stands out like a sore thumb. And it was all right; I thought, “I’ve been here before!” [laughs.]

Abbate:

Where were you actually living at that point?

Marrs:

Well, I’d still got my home here [in Cambridge], but it was July that I went, so through the summer I was living on the campus and looking for a flat to buy. I didn’t know when I went over there what the situation was, whether I’d get digs, or what would happen. But property was a lot cheaper [in Norwich] than it was in Cambridge, and in fact, what happened: I had saved up for my next motorcar, so I’d got some money in the Building Society, and instead of buying a motorcar, I bought a flat in Norwich! [laughs.] And then I realized, after a while, that it wasn’t just a temporary measure; it was the first permanent job I’d had. Because in Cambridge there were all these jobs that were financed by grants, and they’d be for five years, three years; and as I say, at Control Engineering, latterly, it was just one year at a time. And this was a permanent job; so I thought, “I’ll stay here.” So I was set up by then: I’d got this flat, and this house here that I came home [to] most weekends. And that was how it went on. But when I think back, I wonder how I stuck it—because I usually drove up there on Monday morning and back on Friday night. Sometimes I’d use the bus or the train, just for a bit of a break, but they weren’t all that convenient. Although I was lucky, the way things worked out, because just about the time that I went, British Rail were trying to encourage more people to use the trains, and they brought in this policy that you could take a bicycle with you—free—so that’s what I used to do. I’d just pack a couple of pannier bags and a saddle bag with what I needed, and take the bicycle on the train, and then I had as good as a taxi at the other end: just cycle out of the station into work.

Abbate:

Were you married at that point?

Marrs:

My first husband had died, and I hadn’t married my second husband. I only married my second husband after I retired—that was this Robert, the blind one, whom I’d trained—I like to say I trained him in his job! So, gave him a good start. And sadly, he died as well—seven years ago. So I’ve been left twice . . .

My first husband was the boss . . .

Abbate:

This is Eric Mutch.

Marrs:

Yes, the one who had interviewed [at Cambridge] me this particular Saturday morning, and in no time at all I’d been offered the job. Well, it turned out—I didn’t know, you see, but it turned out that he was going to America for a sabbatical summer, and helping at MIT—I suppose helping with their summer school, and getting experience, and so on—and he wanted to see this appointment sorted out before he went out, which was the urgency from this end; and I didn’t know that until a long time afterwards. And his story was always that people came and went, and I was so invaluable to the place that the only way of keeping me there was to marry me! [both laugh.]

Abbate:

I’m sure there was a bit more to it than that!

Marrs:

Well, I think there was, but I mean, it’s a good story! [laughs.]

Well, Robert: We kept in touch with him, really having started him off. When first he came, he had just failed his A Level maths at school, and Eric said to him, “Well, the first thing you’re going to do is take that A Level again: silly to be so close and not get it.” So he used to come here, once a week, during that year, and I . . . Well, it was one-to-one, so we were at an advantage; but it wasn’t much more than one-to-one at his school—it was such a small school, and they had this specialist—but somehow I managed to enthuse him, I think. And I found what the weak points were, so I’d spend my week inventing examples and give them to him the next week, and he’d take them home and do them, so that he got this; and I think he—the second time he took it, he got nearly full marks! [laughs.] So that was a good basis, which stood him in good stead, because particularly in the civil service—his department had university and civil service staff, at the school of agriculture—your qualifications determined what grade you went in, effectively. He couldn’t have gone into the scientific grade without two A Levels . . . Or no, maybe that was the university appointment; it might have been. Anyway, it was worth having.

And so we’d kept in touch all along, and Robert used to come here quite a lot, and particularly while I was in Norwich; he would come here sometimes to get away at lunch time from the office, and he would usually stay here one night during the week as well, so that the place looked a bit more inhabited; and it all worked very well. And then after I retired, I was here all the time. My story is that he wanted to get married, and I had no plans to get married again, and he was younger than I was, and I thought, “Well, what would happen when I’ve gone? What would he do when I’ve gone?” And my story is that he caught me in a weak moment, and I said yes! [both laugh.]

But anyway, in spite of the difference in ages, it was a very happy time. But we’d been very good friends for years. We’d holiday’d together for a long time, which was good for both of us, because he had somebody to take him around, and I took him to favorite places, and we sort of got other places which were our favorite places. And that’s how I got involved in the family history, because after we were married we looked for something that we could do together. And he’d been interested in history; he used to go WA courses, which they had in the village where he lived; but most of my stuff was handicraft and music. So we went on a family history course, and we never looked backed from there! It kind of took over our lives, and it determined where we went for our holidays, as well—because we’d go based on record offices—and gave us a lot of pleasure. I’ve managed to give a few lectures on the subject since. I was building up to that before he died; we foresaw that that opportunity would come. But it’s only voluntary, to local organizations; I’ve never dealt seriously enough in it. But you still get very interesting sidelines from it; it makes an interesting talk that’s particular to yourself. [laughs.]

The next one I’m planning, I’ve been thinking about: You’ve not been here long enough to know, but about three weeks ago, on the radio Saturday morning, there’s a program that runs regularly—is it called “Family Matters?”—anyway, it’s about families and topics, and this John Peel runs it, and people ring in with funny things. For instance, a few months ago he got people ringing in about if they were evacuees, or if there were people who’d had evacuees put on them during the war, and share these things. About three weeks ago, he’d thrown out this thing about brushes with famous people.

Abbate:

I think I heard, actually . . . I think I heard it last weekend, and they were mentioning some stories . . .

Marrs:

Yes, yes, that’s right. Well, this particular one was so funny. They played, in the background the whole time that they were doing it, the song, “I danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales.” And they had that running through the background, and people sent in these things, and they were so trivial, and they were so funny! There was one chap who had given an elastoplast to somebody who had climbed with Chris Bonnington! [laughs.] And I just sat here, roaring with laughter! And they just came on, just these brief sentences, one after the other—most of the people I’ve never heard of—and there’s somebody had talked over the fence to somebody who had done for somebody famous, and all kinds of things like this. And it was so funny, and I thought, “Well, we’ve got quite a lot of tenuous links with the famous. One could build a family history talk around that, even.” For instance, Robert’s—one of Robert’s branches came from Dorset; they were dairy men; and I don’t know whether you know Thomas Hardy’s novels, but they were about the same area. Tess of the D’Ubervilles, I think it was that one, they did a dramatization on the radio a while ago, and it started off, “The great vale of the dairies.” And I thought, “And I know where that is!” [laughs] —where his people came from. And one of his families came from the village of Higher Bockhampton, which is where Thomas Hardy’s family came from, so we liked to think that the Vines delivered milk to the Hardy family, and kept them going. So you get these tenuous links.

And another time, when we were down there—we liked to go to churchyards to see if there were any relevant gravestones. Very rarely we found them, particularly down there—I think there’s one church in Hampshire where we did find some family graves—but we did this little trip up into Somerset, and we’d got about five churches to go and visit. One day, at one of these, we drove into this village called East Coker, which didn’t mean anything to me, and at the time it didn’t really mean anything to Robert. As we drove in, there was a signpost at the church, and we were about to turn left, and two men in morning dress came running down the drive: “Are you looking for the wedding car park?” We said, “Well no, no, we just wanted to look at the church; but can we use your car park?” “Yes,” they said, “park in that field.” So we drove down in our old Ford, parked along with these Bentleys and Daimlers and all these swish cars, and left the car; walked up to the churchyard, and there was a wedding in progress. Two men, the photographers, were in the churchyard, so we said to one of them about . . . Oh, we looked round, and there weren’t any—I think there were very few stones at all there; it was very grassed-over—and we talked to one of these men, and did he know when [the wedding would be over]. “Oh,” he said, “the church is beautiful; it’s worth waiting and having a look round the church.” And it was only then that Robert realized it was T. S. Eliot’s church, and he wrote a poem—he wrote four poems, and one of them was called “East Coker.” I mean, he [Robert] was a bit more literate than I was; I’m only numerate! [laughs.] And so this man said, “Oh, it’s worth looking round the church”; I should wait. So we said, “Well, do you know when the service is likely to end?” And he calls to his mate, “Charlie! Charlie! What time do they come out?” So the man pulls out this old slip, and reads out: “Twelve-sixteen precisely,” he said. [laughs.] So we sat in the churchyard and listened to this lovely music coming from the church, and sat in the sun—it was beautiful—and then we looked in this church, and sure enough there was a bust of T. S. Eliot in there, and various stuff.

Things like that happen, you see? And you could—I thought, “You could bring them into a talk.”

Abbate:

You have children, yes?

Marrs:

No, no, no, no, from neither marriage—well, I was too old the second time, anyway—so I haven’t got any family.

Abbate:

Who was that in Seattle?

Marrs:

That’s a brother.

Abbate:

That’s a brother, that’s right.

Marrs:

Yes, that’s the one who went in for engineering. He worked for English Electric, after he’d finished his apprenticeship, and then he worked for the atomic energy people in Capenhurst in Cheshire; and they were gradually winding down, and it was when he saw the writing on the wall . . . I think Heather, his wife, had several brothers and sisters, and two brothers had gone over to the States and set up a motor business, and they encouraged Edmund and Heather, “Oh, things are much better over here!” Well it depended what you were doing, whether they were much better. Edmund and Heather spent a long time cruising around. They started off in the Los Angeles area, because, I think, Heather had a sister there, and [she said] “Oh! There are plenty of opportunities here!” So they went there: not in Edmund’s line. And then they—money was running out, and they were sight-seeing quite a lot, and so they set off in their vehicle, and he settled in Seattle. He didn’t work for Boeing, but he worked for a small firm that did a lot of contract work for Boeing, and I think that was basically his job for the rest of his career. He still goes in. Heather said he goes in, sees the chaps, and has a game of cards, and so on! [laughs.] Very friendly place. I know, he took me in there when I was there, and he showed me—and there all on—everything’s done on computers now. He never got to grips with computers, but the others were all doing this.

Balancing Work and Family

Abbate:

Was it ever an issue for you to balance your work and family responsibilities?

Marrs:

The only time that it happened was when my first husband in 1964 started having health problems, and it was a succession of—I don’t know whether they were actual heart attacks, or whether they were building up to a heart attack and caught in time, but it was obvious over about five years that he was getting slower and slower, and I changed over to working part-time. That was really the only thing that came into consideration.

I must say, you lose out an awful lot when you’re only working—well, I was working half-time; I think I worked every morning and Friday afternoons; and you miss things because you weren’t there on Tuesday when something happened, and so on. You didn’t feel you belonged quite the same . . . And then I went back to working full-time after he died, after a heart attack.

Abbate:

Was it ever awkward working the same place as your husband?

Marrs:

No! It wasn’t. But if you get in touch with Jennifer Leech, you’ll hear her story about it as well.

When I got this job: apparently one of the research students, his wife was in Cambridge with him, and she was a contender for the job; but the director—this was only what I was told, so I don’t know what’s really behind it—but anyway, he didn’t approve; he didn’t think husband and wife working on the same premises would work. But ours was different, because we were both on the staff for three years anyway, before we were married: so we didn’t get the sack. And I don’t think there was any conflict at all; we were doing different work, and so—well, he was my boss, really; but again, I don’t think we took advantage of that at all—I don’t think there was anything . . .

Jennifer—as I said to you, she was married to Brian Haselgrove, and they were in Manchester; and he died, and she carried on working there. Before he died they were both down here on one occasion, and I think we had lunch together, or we had a meal together, and Jennifer said that Brian had a brain tumor, and nobody knew what was going to happen; and she said she was working full time. She had a son by then, but obviously things were—oh, I think I know what it was: her father was a school teacher; I think he had his own private school; and I guess that he undertook to see that Richard was all right. But anyway, I remember Jennifer saying to me that she’d gone back to work full time, because she didn’t know when she was going to have to be the breadwinner. But in fact, she told me subsequently that the university paid Brian’s salary right until the time that he died, although at the end he wasn’t able to be an active member.

But—this is gossip, really—but some time after this, Jennifer applied for and got a job at Glasgow University. Well, we knew John Leech was at Glasgow. John was Brian’s best friend, actually, when they were students together in Cambridge—we knew them all—and I remember Joyce Wheeler and me having a little conversation, and it was a case of, “Jennifer’s going up to Glasgow; do you think there’s anything in it?” “Well . . . “ This sort of thing, you know. [laughs.] Well, they got married—I think after a year, I’m not sure—and the boss wouldn’t have it! And I think he tried to push Jennifer out, but John got a professorship at Stirling [instead]. [laughs.] That’s sort of gossip, really; but you do realize that people have different feelings on this.

There must be lots of husband-and-wife pairs these days, because that’s where you meet your spouses in a lot of cases. You know, you’re obviously similar types, that you’ve ended up in the same job.

Abbate:

Right. I don’t know if this is true here, but in the United States, they used to have anti-nepotism laws so that—this was maybe more in the ‘50s—so that if a woman married a man at the same university, they generally would fire the woman—never the man, of course!

Marrs:

No, never the man! Well, that’s what got both Jennifer and John, and I think John more than Jennifer. But he went off and got this professorship at Stirling.

Abbate:

I guess it was sort of well-meaning, but backwards. I mean, it’s one thing if you’re already married and you hire your relatives . . .

Marrs:

That’s right.

Abbate:

. . . but if you’re both already there . . .

Marrs:

Yes, yes. Well, I think that’s what happened here. You may hear differently from Karen, I don’t know. Karen probably wasn’t around when we were married; I think they were that bit younger, but I really don’t know.

Are you seeing Joyce Wheeler, by any chance? Is she one of the people on your thing, or are they away, or what?

Abbate:

I don’t remember . . .

Marrs:

She’s in Cambridge. She was a user; she was an astronomer. But I think she’s always kept at it.

Women in the Workplace

Abbate:

Did you ever feel that as a woman, you had ever been discriminated against, or made to feel uncomfortable?

Marrs:

At Ferranti’s, yes! Yes, Yes. I’ll tell you at Ferranti’s: I can sort of remember the actual figures. I went in 1951, and I was hoping to get a salary of about 400 pounds, because that’s what teachers were getting. Anyway, I was offered 360, and I went back to Mrs. Baxter, and I said, “They sort of led me to believe when I went for interview, ‘Well, it might not be 400, but sort of 380.’ What ought I to do about it?” And she said, “Well, you can write and sort of say, ‘What are the prospects?’, something like that.” So I wrote, and it was all rather noncommittal. Anyway, I went and I took the job, and as I say, this Betty started the same day as I did—she had been in school teaching, which was irrelevant, if you like—and Mary Berners-Lee joined us a month later, and she had had this research in Australia; and they were both getting about 500 pounds. They were older than I was, of course.

But then—we had a rise, a cost of living rise at some stage; I can’t remember from then on what the figures were—but the following year, people came in: and the one that I know is Harry Cotton, who is on that list; he was one of the people that came in a year later, and although he was straight from university, he was getting about 500 a year, and I, having been there a year, was getting about 429, or something like that. I mean, that’s . . .

Abbate:

 Hmm!

Marrs:

So they were very surprised at Ferranti’s when [I took the job at Cambridge]; they said, “Oh, you’ll take a great cut in pay.” And I said, “No. No, it’s more!” Because it was equal—it was equal pay at Cambridge. And it has been, ever since, for the university.

Abbate:

So Ferranti had a different pay scale for men and women?

Marrs:

Obviously! Yes, and it was by age, not experience. But they certainly . . . Well, this John Leech came to Ferranti’s as well, and I know he was getting something like this 500; but then, he was post-grad, so that was more reasonable.

But I mean, that’s all I know. But since then I’ve been in university, and they’ve always had equal pay. You might feel that you never had the same opportunities as a man—[but] I never wanted them; I was never particularly ambitious. I always felt, when I was in the Maths Lab, I thought, “I’ve got the most perfect job anybody could have; I wouldn’t want to leave” sort of thing—and feel sorry for the rest of the world, because I was sitting in this job, and nobody else had a chance! [laughs.]

Reflecting on Computing

Abbate:

What did you find the most satisfying aspects of working with computers?

Marrs:

The challenge, I think, really.

And I always enjoyed the . . . Well, this applies to any job, I suppose: the getting out and having a routine, and meeting people; and that’s what one misses most, after retirement. Except then Robert was my retirement job, which hadn’t been intended, but I had to be pretty supportive of him; I used to ferry him around a bit, and sometimes I took him to work in the morning, and I had to be around at the end of the afternoon in case he didn’t manage to get a lift. He had two colleagues who came past this way, but one of them was the systems manager, and the other one was—well, he was in systems, so they would sometimes have commitments and have to stay. So I always had to be in the house at about five in case Robert rang because he needed transport, and so on. But otherwise, I had my day on my own, and we came to this arrangement: I did my own thing in the daytime, and—apart from one orchestra rehearsal in the evening—we did things together in the evenings. And no conflict; it all worked very smoothly.

Abbate:

It sounds like working with computers was a pretty social activity for you, and you met a lot of people.

Marrs:

Yes, yes! When I left Cambridge I was rather upset, because I thought “I won’t meet people the same”; but you met people, but they were different people, that’s all.

The reason I’ve got the Amstrad [computer] there is that the last job I did at Manchester—at Norwich—I . . . We used to have a lot of—micros, I think they were—and personal computers that would be linked, and so on . . .

Abbate:

Into a local network?

Marrs:

Yes. And we were on the national network; we did file transfer between—we used the Cambridge and the Manchester computers from Norwich: Cambridge because it was the regional one and Manchester because it was the powerful one. There were just the two. There was one at . . . I say Oxford, but the laboratory, Rutherford Laboratory; and probably London; and Manchester: well, we had a link to Manchester. We fed jobs in our card reader, and they went up the link and were performed at Manchester.

Abbate:

Now, you were at Norwich until when?

Marrs:

1986. Yes. And so, these personal computers, which could be used as communications to the network: They were coming in, and Oh! We did try to have some regulation on what people got! But it didn’t work that way at all. The boss would say that “Oh! If somebody goes out and buys an Apricot, we’re not going to support that,” but we had to, because they’d got this Apricot, and they wanted to attach it, so they had to have our help. This was particularly help from our electronics, I mean the physical side of things, rather than the programming. But then, just—not very long before I left—the Amstrad came out, and all of a sudden they realized that people who’ve never used computers before were going to be getting Amstrads; and they did: people in the English faculty and places like that, for their typing.

Abbate:

Was that the most popular PC, the Amstrad?

Marrs:

Not really. There was a BBC before that, BBC micro, because the BBC did a television series—I can’t remember when it was, because I didn’t see it—but anyway, they produced this BBC micro; and Acorn—who were a Cambridge firm, in fact—were the ones who manufactured it. It should have been a great success, and it was at the start, but it very quickly tailed off; I’m not into real reasons why.

But anyway, this Amstrad was a standalone thing. Le— . . . What was he called? I can’t remember the name of our chap now. He developed links between the Amstrad and the others. It was a box that you attach at the back called an RS232, which converts LogoScript to ASCII, I think.

Anyway, I was shut in an office with an Amstrad and the handbook, and told to find out how it worked! So that I was ready to deal with all these people that they expected to come flooding in. So that was really the last job I did at Norwich—and I used to have to go around the departments, and give them little pep talks, and show them how to do the tapes—initialize the disks, I mean, not tapes—and get them going. And the first . . . what did they call it? . . . anyway, the first built-in thing had lots of errors in it, and you couldn’t have set up page numbers! [laughs.] That caught everybody out, and they’d want to know how to do that, and couldn’t make it do it. Anyway, there was a reissue, I think, the following year.

Abbate:

Of the word processor?

Marrs:

Yes, so that had been corrected, that particular one. That caught everybody! [laughs.] But that was quite a challenge. And we used to run a lot of BASIC courses for these other—these various people that weren’t so scientific, as well.

But I think I said, when I went to Norwich, that the main difference was that there were a lot of statistical packages that they used there, particularly with this SPSS. I’d never come across those before, so I had to learn about those: one called Minitab, which was quite a simple little statistical package that was actually online; GenStat to a lesser degree. In fact, Robert worked—most of their work was done—he was a FORTRAN programmer, but a lot of their work was done on GenStat, which is a much higher-powered package than SPSS, for instance. It’s real statistics, is that. We used to get the occasional query on that, so I’d been on a two-day, two-or-three-day course, and able to deal with those. We—apart from doing this desk—we all of us had our specialities; and I, because I’d got the Cambridge background—in fact, the person I replaced had been at Cambridge as well, so it was convenient that I turned up at that time—I had to deal with all their Cambridge inquiries.

Abbate:

About using the computer?

Marrs:

From them using the computer [at Cambridge], yes. They submitted the job—in that case, I think they . . . no, they didn’t. Again, they submitted by cards as well; but basically, it was submitted from a console, and then sent along the link; and I think the output came back to our printers, because I think the operators had control over this, so that it used to queue itself up, and they had to—large amounts they had to print out overnight. But really large amounts were actually done in Cambridge and transported over.

But it was all very, very exciting, very interesting.

Abbate:

The networking part?

Marrs:

Oh, the whole lot. Yes. I couldn’t have thought of a better job!

Abbate:

Because you were always doing something new . . .

Marrs:

Yes! Yes, that’s right.

Abbate:

How would you say the field of computing has changed overall since you started?

Marrs:

Well, you see when I started, we—well, apart from Ferranti’s—in Cambridge, they were always these one-off computers, which . . . They were built for the purpose, and they served the purpose, but you didn’t have any insurance if things went wrong. And since then, of course, they’ve got onto using manufacturers’ computers—so it’s somebody else’s fault! [both laugh.]

But now, of course, I’m right left behind. I was playing music with friends this morning, and one of them said, about the Internet—oh, she said to—this Atheni [sp?] said to Norman something about, “You could get that from the Internet,” and she said, “You ought to use it sometime, you know. My father does so-and-so, so-and-so, and so-and-so.” And he said, “Could I just use it, and I just go and type something in, and it tells me?” And she said, “Well, yes!” He said, “What, like ‘music’?” “Yes.” Well, I thought, it’s not like that; it’s not like that, the Internet. And I told them my experience of it, which wasn’t me [using the computer], but it’s—about . . . probably something over a year ago, I went into the city library here to look up something about the swimming champion of the summer before; I can’t remember now what it was. So I went to the desk, and I said, Did they have the newspapers of the week between Christmas and the New Year, like the Telegraph and the Times and the Guardian? Because they always do a review of the past year, and they always have a section on sport, and I guessed I would find it here. And she said, “Yes, I think you can find those,” and she said, What was it I wanted? And I said, “Well I want to know this particular swimming champion.” Well she said, “It’s not very busy out there; you could try on the Internet.” So she came, and of course she knew what she was doing, and she got onto the Internet, and she was querying on swimming and this and that. Well, I mean, we could have had a swimming pool built in our back garden by one of I don’t know how many suppliers, but we didn’t find anything about swimming champions! [both laugh.]

And then I had another one, it’s only about a fortnight ago, and I was very cross, because I think the reference library have been getting rid of reference books. They used to have a trade directory, and if I wanted to know of a firm, I’d look at this trade directory—they’re all in alphabetical order—and find out what I wanted. Well, I couldn’t find this; they had lots of trade directories, but they were like the ten thousand largest companies. One I looked at was something about textile industry, which was what I wanted: I wanted to find out where was the firm called Alice Collins, chiefly because I’ve got an outfit of that, and they’re not in the shops, and I suspect they’re mail-order, but I don’t think they have their own mail-order catalog.

So anyway, I looked through lots of these books, and there’s no mention, except one book had mention of something, which—it’s irrelevant what it had—and it was a subgroup of Alice Collins, so they did have that reference, so I knew that they were still in business. Well, I spent quite a lot of time, and I didn’t find—I mean, the trade directory that I wanted wasn’t there. So I went up to the counter, and I said I was trying to find this information; “But” I said, “I don’t know.” So she said, “Where have you looked? Have you look at so-and-so?” And I said, “Well yes, I looked at that side, and then this specialist . . .” “Oh,” she said, “I can’t think—that’s what I would have suggested you do. Well,” she said, “let’s look on the Internet.” So she gets onto the Internet, and searches for Alice Collins—and I think Alice Collins was a netball player, and that was the only Alice Collins! So I think what they’ve done is they’ve said, “Oh, we’ll chuck the books now; we’ve got all the information we want on Internet”—and they haven’t got all the information that the customer wants, I think. [laughs.]

Abbate:

Or at least not organized very well.

Marrs:

No, no.

Abbate:

But it’s handy.

Marrs:

Oh yes! And everybody says, “Oh, you ought to get—you ought to get the Internet for family history; you will find it very useful.” Well, I think you could log onto the Internet, find out all that there is on the Marrses, if you like, the Lewins, the Laylands [sp?], and my other families: and then that’s it! But I’ve . . . I communicate by telephone with a couple of people up in the Northeast. One of them is named—no, he’s not; none of them are named Marrs. One is a John Milburne [sp?], and he knows a Hilton [sp?] Marrs, who in fact is one of Robert’s very distant relations, and he’d gathered that I had quite a lot of information. So we talk from time to time. And then I was rung just before Christmas by somebody called Noble, and he had met this John Milburne in the Record Office, and they’d been chatting, and this Allen [sp?] Noble is descended from the Marrses of . . . A Marrs married a Noble, something like that, so he is related—and they talk about what they get from the Internet. But I think you—I mean, you [only] get it once, unless somebody puts some more stuff. But this John Milburne once sent me some stuff: “I’ve got some information off the Internet! I’ll send it to you!” So there’s this sheet that came, and it was about two or three individuals, and then another sheet came, and then another sheet came—and this had come from North America. It came from me in the first place! [laughs.] I’d supplied it to Stella, and Stella had passed it to somebody else, I suppose, and it had got on the Internet, and it came full circle! [both laugh.] I could tell, because it was some of my wording!

She sent me some stuff about some other Marrses; her Marrses aren’t related. We think . . . I don’t know whether she’s discovered any more, but we think that her husband’s Marrses probably came from Ireland to Scotland and settled, and—well, they’ve got two or three generations: I think one was a beekeeper, for instance, and hurdle maker, those sort of country crafts. Anyway, we keep in touch. I had a letter from her yesterday, the day before, which is so sad, because she’s right in the middle of this border area where they’ve got the foot and mouth, and she said her chest’s bad because there’s smoke all time; it’s been this overcast weather, and the smoke hasn’t cleared. She said that this particular day that she was writing it was a bit fresher, and she said, “I can see about five or six plumes of smoke, and they’re going up.” And thought, “How awful, actually living there!” I rang the hotel where we used to stay when we went up there, two or three weeks ago, and he said, “No, no visitors!” But the hotel is full of ministry people, actually on the job. That is a depressing thought.

Abbate:

I’m sorry. It really is.

Marrs:

But I don’t make the use that I should. I ought to get onto this World Wide Web. But then I was thinking, earlier on today: You get junk mail, you can throw the junk mail away; you get junk telephone calls, they’re a bit harder; but suppose you had access to the World Wide Web, and you had all these emails, junk emails coming in! And maybe a virus with them.

Abbate:

Well, you can filter them.

Marrs:

Can you?

Abbate:

The way I have it, you can sort it into different folders, and it’ll do it automatically based on who sent it, so . . .

Marrs:

Oh, yes. Well, I know some people talk about . . . Well, I’m just trying to think which friend it was now [who] said, “Oh, you’re not tied to it, really.” She said, “We will go off to bed at night and think, ‘Oh! we haven’t even logged in today’”—so they log in just to see if there are any messages. [both laugh.] But I feel—well, I use this very little; I only use it as a word processor; and I wouldn’t want to log in every day. My sister has something more; I think she’s got a Macintosh, I’m not sure. She could connect up to Internet, but she doesn’t email. People say, “Oh, I wish you were on email; I could send you messages!” No; I wouldn’t want to have to log in every day to see if anybody sent me messages.

Abbate:

Well, you don’t need to. I don’t.

Marrs:

Well, they will pile up, won’t they? But do you fill your store, or anything like that? Do you have a limited amount?

Abbate:

The way I have it, I—the mail program’s called Eudora; it downloads them to my laptop, and then I can read them at my leisure, and it’s got, you know, some huge amount of memory. So it doesn’t—the computer that gets the mail—it doesn’t really fill up. So I can just download the mail whenever I want, and some of them I just automatically delete. And some of them—anything that’s sort of junk mail, I just have it set up: I never even see them; they just automatically . . .

Marrs:

How can you tell that it’s junk mail, though?

Abbate:

You can often tell by who—by the headers of who sends it. Or if you have a good provider, they might filter it out. The university, which is where I get my mail, tends to filter out the commercial stuff.

Marrs:

Oh, I see. What, the university itself?

Abbate:

Yes, I get it through my employer. Anyway, it’s possible to set it up so it’s not too intrusive.

Marrs:

I could see you sitting at that for an hour every day, just looking at this stuff!

Abbate:

Well, I do a lot of work through it, so . . .

Marrs:

Oh yes, I’m sure. I’m sure if I had been still working, I would have got the facilities by now. Well, I could have had them at work.

Abbate:

But my social email is not very big . . .

Marrs:

There seem to be quite a lot of occasions when email is the only route. I don’t know whether you’ve come across this, but there was one a month or two ago, on the radio here, and it was a survey of birds and gardens, and it was done in conjunction with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and they wanted people to note what birds they saw at particular times, and they gave an email address. And there was a real outcry about these people that didn’t have email, but they wanted to take part in the survey! And they got somebody from the RSPB to talk, and it was a case of—from the response they got when they did it at a different time of year, the number of people that sent in information, they couldn’t handle it by hand; it had to be handled by computer—which is valid.

Role Models in the Industry

Abbate:

Yes.

A couple of other questions. Did you have any mentors or role models when you were starting out?

Marrs:

It’s funny you say that, because when I was at Ferranti’s, there was just . . .

[TAPE 2, SIDE 1]

Marrs:

At Ferranti’s, we were all learning, and it didn’t worry me so much when I was there; but when I came to Cambridge after the one year, it was the difference that struck me, because there was always somebody who knew . . .

Abbate:

At Cambridge?

Marrs:

At Cambridge, yes. Well, there was Dr. Miller for instance; he was a great numerical analyst and came up with ideas. So there was always somebody more senior than you who knew—whereas, as I say, at Ferranti’s we were effectively floundering around. Are you wasting time? You don’t know.

Abbate:

Was it mostly women programming at Ferranti’s?

Marrs:

That first year, I think there were just the three of us, and we were women, yes. And then there was Audrey [Bates], who had done this M.Sc. at Manchester, who was senior staff—she was kind of a year or two ahead of us; there was Cyril [Veinott], who was my immediate boss; and then there was John [Bennett], who was more senior; and Dr. Prince, who was very much a mathematician.

Abbate:

And so you could learn from these people, or call on them for help?

Marrs:

Yes, you could learn from them. I mean, John Bennett was very good; and as I say, I was working with this Cyril on this particular project. I’ve thought about this, recently; I was telling somebody quite recently about it. I told you it was this Runge-Kutta method, where you start with initial values, and you—by, well, I think iteration—anyway, you progress the variables through one step, and then you do that repeatedly until you get to the end of whatever it is.

Abbate:

For the differential equations?

Marrs:

Yes, for these differential equations. But we had some test data from the people on the analog computer—they were working, both teams working on this particular project; and it was random data that was coming in, and they gave us this data as they’d got it set up on theirs, so we could test against: and it didn’t match! Well, it wasn’t really my problem; I don’t know whether Cyril worried himself over it, but I mean I . . . we were both of us involved in this. But they didn’t agree! Well, I don’t know how it was solved, but the reason that it happened was that this random data gave quite a sharp peak just after it started off, and we never took a small enough interval—so it didn’t show it. But once we took a small enough interval . . . I don’t know whether we made it automatic—I really can’t remember that—but I do know that some time later I was doing a problem for one of the people in the maths faculty in Cambridge, and that was called the three-body program, and I had to make that so that the interval that you integrated over was dependent on certain things; and sometimes you had to have it very small intervals, and other times you could get away with large. It was an astronomical setup.

Abbate:

Was that just kind of rules of thumb you developed about how to make the intervals?

Marrs:

Yes, yes. I think you would do over two small intervals, and then you would do over the large interval and compare the results, and if they were close enough you would take the larger interval for the next one.

Abbate:

I suppose nowadays, with more powerful computers, you have the luxury of making them very small . . .

Marrs:

I really don’t know how these days . . . I don’t know how they do program scientific stuff these days, because so much is this menu-driven stuff. I was talking to my sister—she used to write in BASIC as well, on her machine—and we were saying about how you can’t do what you want these days, because you have these packages, and you’re bound by them.

Abbate:

Do you think it’s less fun now than it used to be?

Marrs:

I’m sure everything’s less fun now! [laughs.] I don’t know how much that is because I’m getting old, and how much . . . Well, there are so many people, and everything’s got to be much more regimented. It was all free and easy in the early days. Well, I was thinking about this queue of people: all these people in the computer room feeding their own programs in, and it was all very sociable. When they got the Titan computer, it was said right from the start that it would have to be different. They’d got double doors between the world at large and the computer room; everything was—well, not quite sterile, but at any rate clean—and they couldn’t have customers going into the computer room.

Abbate:

Were you more shut off from the users at that point? The people operating it?

Marrs:

Well, I was a user, really, by that stage; I was doing systems work then. But I very rarely went into the computer room. And you lost something; you lost something of this friendliness.

And I’m sure really, there’s a lot more—there’s got to be more discipline. You may hear from Karen about what it’s like in the Maths Lab today, but every now and then you hear that somebody has done something that they shouldn’t, and they get penalized. I don’t know whether they get sent down, or whether they use a term’s computing, or what they do.

Abbate:

You mean like hacking, or some kind of . . . ?

Marrs:

Yes, yes! I was talking to somebody on Saturday—not to do with computers at all; it goes on everywhere—he’s in one of the departments in the university library, and he was talking about somebody who’s just been fined 450 pounds for defacing a book. Their cataloguing, and all their logging, is done on computer now, and he said, “So when a book is returned and it is damaged, they can trace back to who’s borrowed that book in the past.” And this chap, he’s—not only has he actually marked the book, he’s sort of gone through the book and highlighted; and it’s a book—although it was only printed in the 1970s, it’s out of print now, so their only chance of getting one is secondhand. And he’s been fined I think 250 pounds for the damage, and a total of 450 pounds for doing it.

Well, I don’t know what their penalties are in the computer lab, but I do know when I was still going to users’ meetings, there were these things used to happen, and somebody had been barred from using the computer for so long . . .

Abbate:

How early did that start? Hacking, or kind of malicious pranks on the computer?

Marrs:

I don’t know whether I know.

Abbate:

I mean in your experience. Is that quite a recent phenomenon?

Marrs:

I would think so . . . Oh, yes! Yes! It would be with the IBM computer, because I remember when that came in, there were all these talks about “security would never be as good as it had been on their own computer”—well, even on the Titan.

Abbate:

And when was that?

Marrs:

I think that would be 1970s, ‘70-ish, something like that, because they . . . Well, they didn’t have the same security.

Abbate:

Interesting.

Marrs:

I must tell you: When Robert once came over to Norwich when I was there, for some reason we went into the department out of hours; I don’t know whether I’d gone to collect something or what, but he was with me, and we went into the punched card room. [laughs.] And this is how people worked, you see: you had—your deck of cards started off with “job,” and the job had a number, I think, and you had a user number; and then a card with your password; and then probably a card with which system it was that you were using. And people did multiple jobs, and they would leave them to run overnight—and there was this pile of cards: “password: x-y-zed-1-2-3-4-5!” [laughs.] And if somebody—anybody could have found those, and they would know who it belonged to, because the other relevant cards were lying around as well! So it was all very casual, was that.

I’m sure it was with the IBM that this lack of . . . You could tamper with people’s files, even, I think. I have a feeling that Cambridge brought something in that you had four categories of file, in the end, one [of which] nobody could touch. I expect people could read [even those files]—I don’t think they could block them out, now, I’m not sure; and you had, perhaps, so that a group could refer to it, if it was one of the departments, and so on. But I’m sure there was no trouble before that—but then, I wasn’t in the computer lab at that stage, so I wasn’t so aware of what was going on. But you got these comments that you picked up.

The Future for Women in Computing

Abbate:

Do you think computer jobs have become more open to women over time?

Marrs:

I’m too far out of it to see, but I would guess so. Girton College ran a conference in 1969—it was a hundred years since the founding of the college—and they chose a conference on computers, because it was one topic which was quite new, and where women had been involved from the start; which is of some significance, in a way. It wasn’t only women who were there; they were invited speakers; but they chose that as their topic, because it seemed appropriate in the circumstances.

Abbate:

Ah.

Do you have any advice for young women who might be entering a computer career today? ‘‘‘Marrs:’’’

Well! I don’t think I’m the right sort of person to give advice, because anybody can go into computers these days, can’t they? I was . . . oh no, it was accountancy, that’s right: I thought you had to be a mathematician to go in for accountancy, but I remember in Norwich meeting people, and “Oh, no, they come from any discipline!” This particular person, I think, had come from classics. And I expect the same thing applies to computers, because everybody uses them now, don’t they? Use them in libraries, and travel agents . . . anywhere—well, even just the shops!

I didn’t tell you this earlier on this afternoon, did I? No, it was the friends this morning I was telling. I went to London on Friday, and I’m going to stay with my sister over the weekend, and I’d like to take her something; and I rang her the other week to see if there was any CD that she would like, and she came up with Dvorak’s Te Deum. She had been to HMV in London to look for it, and she couldn’t find it—and she went to seek help, but she got sidetracked, and she had them looking for something else; and she came away with that, and it was only when she got home she thought: “Oh! I didn’t pursue the Dvorak!” So she said, “If you can get that . . . “ So anyway, I went to Tower Records. I think you’ll hardly believe this: I asked about this CD—I’ll just go and fetch this book that she found [takes music catalog off shelf]—so I asked the man about that, and he looked, and he said, “That’s gone out of the catalog.” Well I said, “Have you got any in?” And would you believe how he had to find out? He couldn’t put in “Dvorak, Te Deum: what have we got?” He had to do this [reading catalog number from book]: “D, I, C, D, so, so-so-so, so-so-so”—type that in, and see what came up. The next one: eleven, eight, sixteen, twenty-one-dash-two—see there? He had to go through this list, typing in these CD numbers!

Abbate:

They must have a terrible database! [laughs.]

Marrs:

Mustn’t they! Yes! And I said to Helen that they didn’t have it; I said he told me that the Supraphon [a Czech record label] that she had asked for was out of the catalog; they’d got the other Supraphon one on order, but because it comes from Czechoslovakia, he didn’t know when it would be in; but if I wanted, I could ring up and they’d put one by or send it through the post. I said, “Do you want me to do that?” And he came up—it was probably the last one on the list, and it turned out that was just a selection: it was a whole lot of sort of this tenor’s favorite songs, and there was one on it. And that was how they did it—and Helen said, “I think that’s what they did at HMV as well, when I asked about this!”

So, what a lousy package! Wouldn’t you think that what you want is, you would go and ask for a work, and type it in?

Abbate:

Of course: and get the whole list. That’s silly.

Marrs:

The ones that they have in book shops are better than that. They type in the information—in fact, even if you don’t get the title right they seem to be pretty good at finding them there.

Abbate:

Oh, well. [both laugh.]

Would you recommend computing as a career?

Marrs:

Oh, yes, I think so! I wouldn’t have had anything else! [laughs.]

I always reckoned that I was one of these introverted mathematicians, and somehow, in computing, you can . . . There are some real, real weird people in it, I’m sure! [laughs.] Well, I have seen some of them. But again, I don’t know whether there’s space for them anymore, these rather unconventional people—

Abbate:

Oh, there is!

Marrs:

Everybody’s got . . . Well, I was thinking, people have got to conform a lot more these days. But you think they can still get away with it, do you?

Abbate:

I’ve met plenty of them. [both laugh.]

Marrs:

Yes, I was always bad with people, really. I always felt that I was. And I always felt meeting Robert brought me out of myself, because when I was with him, I was the one that had to take the initiative always.

Abbate:

That’s interesting, because I would think in your position as operator you would need to be dealing with people all the time.

Marrs:

Oh yes, yes. I’ve never had awkwardnesses, really. Well, actually, I say that! All my career, [laughs] there’s been this funny thing about: In Cambridge, and then in Norwich, you get some awkward user—you can imagine this, some awkward user—and then it comes to the end of their three years, and you [think], “Oh, at last So-and-so will be going!” And there always another one to take his place! [both laugh.]

Abbate:

Well, it can be a thankless job, being the person helping out the users.

Marrs:

Yes, yes, that’s right. You tend to get the blame, even if it’s not—even if it’s not yours—sometimes, if things go wrong.

I had one example—it’s perhaps a bit unfair to mention one particular example—but as I said, we didn’t do very much programming for other people; but this was a research person, and he just came along, and he wanted a—what did they call them? I’m not very good on statistics at all, but it was some particular thing that he wanted. Well, I didn’t know what it meant, even, and I wanted it written out in mathematical expressions; and he couldn’t do that; and I didn’t know it; and we sort of floundered around; and it ended up—I mean, I was floundering around—it ended up by him using the fact that I hadn’t produced his answers quickly enough [as the reason] that he hadn’t got his thesis in by the date! And Robert, funnily enough, told me about a similar experience that they had in their department. I don’t know that he was the one who was involved, but anyway, it was somebody in their department who was doing a program for a research person, and this research person wrote to say—and he used this as the excuse—and the boss said, “Right: you’re not doing any more programming from anybody who can do it themselves!”

Abbate:

To you?

Marrs:

No, this isn’t my place; this is Robert’s place. And so they only did it within the department—only did programming within the department.

Abbate:

And that way people couldn’t complain, because they were doing it themselves?

Marrs:

Yes, yes, right.

Mine, I suppose it was partly my fault, but . . . and I had somebody in charge of me as well, so I had somebody to refer to. This chap used to talk to me about his tame statistician—and I have no doubt he talked to her [the statistician] about his tame programmer! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Well really, if they can’t form their requests mathematically, that’s not . . .

Marrs:

Well, no, but it is in textbooks; and if this SPSS had been there, for instance, we’d have just fed his data—it would have gone in; it was statistical analysis. He would have got an answer, whether it was the right one or not! And he’d have been satisfied, if he was anything like the Norwich people were! [laughs.] They just got the answer, and so that was all they wanted.

Abbate:

You did mainly applications things—but you say you did some systems? What was that?

Marrs:

Oh, yes, but it wasn’t—it wasn’t real—it was just a part of a package, usually. I did some of that at the Maths Lab, after they got the Titan, and it would be part of something bigger. And I did a certain amount when I was at Control Engineering, as well. But I was never at the top, controlling a whole system or anything like that; I was just one of . . .

Abbate:

Doing a module or something?

Abbate:

Yes, yes: that’s right. I think my sister was much more in charge of bigger things. But again, I’m not sure, because she talked about when she was at the World Bank, she was working with just herself and one man I think, who were on this particular thing—and she’d been applying for early retirement, and he would say, “Oh, Helen, wait another couple of years, and then I’ll be retiring at the same time!” [laughs.]

Abbate:

Can’t do without you! [laughs.]

Marrs:

That’s how she got one of her jobs, actually. She ended up in Social Survey in London, and it was when she was working at CEIR. She was working, she was doing this—whatever the job was—for the Civil Service, and somebody left; and they felt they needed to have an expert on the premises. She said it wasn’t necessary—the package was finished and it was all working—but they were so adamant, and they wanted her to go for interview, and, as she put it, they made her an offer that she couldn’t refuse! [laughs.]

Abbate:

It’s a good skill to have.

Marrs:

Yes, yes! It is! Mind you, when I had this problem in 1976 looking for a job, scientific programmers were very rarely advertised for. It was usually experience in some particular sort of systems or other—and sometimes they specified the computer.

Abbate:

This was the mid-’70s?

Marrs:

Yes.

Abbate:

Was there a recession here, in terms of—within the computer field?

Marrs:

I wouldn’t think so. I wouldn’t—because I think it’s always been a growing one. I don’t think there’ve ever been enough people.

Abbate:

I know in the States, the only period where computer jobs fell was in the ‘70s, when we were having a big recession, and I wasn’t sure if that happened here or not.

Marrs:

Oh. Well, we certainly had a recession, yes, in the stock market—so it was widespread.

Abbate:

But there was still a lot of demand for computer people?

Marrs:

Yes, yes, I think so. But, as I say, a lot more in the business world. They were probably coming in, weren’t they, at that stage, I suppose: business [systems].

Abbate:

Did you not want to want to work in the business world?

Marrs:

Well, it didn’t arise! Because I hadn’t grown up with it, and so I wasn’t in a position to apply for those sort of jobs. Anyway, I liked the scientific side. That was what I was—well, making use of my training, in a way. By going out into the educational side, running these courses and things like that—that was using it, as well. I would say I didn’t take to COBOL, really.

Abbate:

I never heard anything particularly good about COBOL . . .

Marrs:

No, but it served its purpose.

Abbate:

It did?

Marrs:

This stuff at local exams was vast amounts of data. They had a very good setup there. They had this programming pool, but they had a data preparation pool—I mean, we’re talking about millions, I think, not thousands, of examinees: people who’ve done these things. And they did records for [word unclear], and I think they were doing stuff for India, and there were vast quantities of stuff—and it all came in at once, and it all had to be dealt with as fast as possible. Well, they had a nucleus [of programmers] there, but all the people that had left to have families and so on: they were in contact with them, and when they’d get one of these rush jobs they had all these other people who had worked there that would come in.

Abbate:

Women?

Marrs:

Yes.

Abbate:

Because they would leave to have families. So they were sort of on call?

Marrs:

I think they were all women—I wouldn’t swear to that. But it was well-organized, was that. There had to be somebody on the premises all the time, in case something came in requiring immediate attention; and my recollection of that room was that they had these huge tables, and they would bring in their dressmaking! They’d got these huge tables to cut out. They had to be on the premises, in case; but there was nothing for them to do, unless something did come in!

Abbate:

[laughs.] That’s so funny!

Marrs:

Yes! Yes, well we were a bit the same, even the programmers. There had to be somebody there. It was a bit soul-destroying, in a way, because you had to be there from half past eight to five o’clock, with three-quarters of an hour for lunch; and I had been used to the flexibility in the other departments of: if you weren’t busy, you could nip out and do your shopping at some stage, or do your shopping on the way to work and come in a little bit late, or it didn’t matter if you took a bit of extra lunch hour, and you stayed late to make up. Well, this was so regimented, and then I would come out at five o’clock and have to fly around the shops that were still open and do the shopping. And there was—in a lot of cases—there was nothing to do! You were just there; you had to be there. You’d have felt one or two people there and some . . .

I think that actually when—now that I think of it—I think it was that that got me down.

Abbate:

Did you work a lot of evening hours at the universities?

Marrs:

No, no. especially in Norwich. The boss always went five prompt.

Abbate:

So people weren’t using the computers all night?

Marrs:

Well, yes, but it was the—the operators were there. I’m not sure whether they were there until midnight; I’ve a feeling it was a two-shift system: they had operators in the daytime—well, in Cambridge I think eventually they probably had them all night; probably had somebody, a skeleton staff, all night.

Abbate:

Because I know people like Lucy Slater were using them at night.

Marrs:

Yes, well, she was a user; she wasn’t a member of staff.

Abbate:

I don’t know if there were any operators, or if she was the operator for herself.

Marrs:

She would almost certainly be allowed to be left in charge. Yes, as I said, in those days there were—more experienced users were allowed to be . . . I always remember one—I think it was a Canadian chap—and he was in charge, and it was this upstairs room—the computer room—and he got up from the console, and he walked, and he thought he saw a ghost there, and it was his reflection in the window in the dark! [both laugh.]

Abbate:

Did you have to know how to fix the hardware . . .?

Marrs:

No, never.

Abbate:

. . . if any of the valves blew out, or anything?

Marrs:

Never. Oh, no, no, they had engineers in those days. I don’t know how it’s done now, because . . . EDSAC I had two engineers: a senior and a junior one. The senior one had been on whatever is the appropriate thing in the Air Force during the war. I think the junior one, Wolfe[sp?], was probably similar; I think he’d got experience of electronics work during the war. And then when they got EDSAC II they took on more engineers;

and then with Titan it was different, because I think the computer was serviced by ICL—I’m not sure—or to some extent. But they found . . . They didn’t lay any engineers off; they did other things. I don’t know a lot what’s happened since then, but the engineers have all retired; they haven’t been turned out. I went to a retirement party—I think it was about two years ago—for two of these engineers that had been there a very long time.

Abbate:

Wow!

Marrs:

And one of them was terribly upset; he was a very youthful sixty-five, I suppose he was—and he was having to retire because he was the age; the other one I think had got plans. When I first went, he wasn’t in the department; but he had been, because he was doing National Service. I don’t know whether you know about National Service. After the war, they carried on this National Service, and every youth, when they reached the age of eighteen, they were liable for a two-years National Service.

Abbate:

How long did that last?

Marrs:

I can’t remember, but I know both my brothers did it, so it went on well into the . . . at any rate, the late ‘50s.

Abbate:

I didn’t know about that. Was it defense-related?

Marrs:

Well, yes. It was military training. It wasn’t really defense; it was just that it was a good idea, I suppose, to have these trained people. Well, you had the draft [in the United States], didn’t you?

Abbate:

Right.

[Recording pauses]

Abbate:

National Service . . .

Marrs:

Oh, yes. We carried on with this National Service long after the war, that young men, unless it was medical reasons, had this two years’ service to do. ... My two brothers had to do it. Robert, the elder one, did two years, and as far as he was concerned it was a two-year interruption to his career—although he was in the—I think he was in the Royal Engineers, which went with surveying, and that. Edmund went into the Air Force, and he was obviously a technical grade, and I think he enjoyed it, and he signed on for a third year! So . . .

Abbate:

Well, thank you so much for talking with me at such length.

Marrs:

Well, it’s been interesting as well.

[END OF RECORDING]