Computer pioneer Kathleen Booth dies at 100

Kathleen Booth, who passed away last month, had a remarkable career in which she achieved many firsts. She is credited with the first assembly language, founding and teaching in the first university computer science department, and researching natural language translation and neural networks well ahead of her time.


If Kathleen Booth’s name means nothing to you, it’s because her fame was eclipsed by her husband Andrew Booth. However, aside from the algorithm that bears its name, much of what is remembered was joint venture. The fact that she co-designed and built the ARC, one of the very first working computers, is recorded in our history article, Andrew Booth and the Forgotten Computers, but as far as Kathleen is concerned, it’s almost everything said. This article hopes to restore the balance.

Kathleen Hylda Valerie Britten was born in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, a market town on the River Severn, but during her teenage years attended King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham which, like today, had an outstanding academic record . She went on to earn a BSc in Mathematics from Royal Holloway College, part of the University of London in 1944. After graduation she spent two years at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough as a junior science officer performing structural tests on materials for use in aircraft manufacturing, then in 1946 she joined a team of mathematicians led by Andrew Booth at Birkbeck College, performing calculations for scientists working on the X-ray crystallography images that have contributed to the discovery of the double helix shape of DNA.

To help manage the numbers, Andrew Booth intended to build a computer machine and began designing the ARC, the Automatic Relay Computer. It was not a general purpose computer. It was specifically designed to do Fourier synthesis, an essential step in determining the structure of a crystal and while it was Andrew’s design, it was Kathleen who did the construction, along with another assistant, Xenia Sweeting.

Kathleen Britten, Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth
working on ARC in December 1946

During a visit to the United States in 1946 to see the advances made with computer technology, Andrew Booth had met Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation, Jay Forrester, Vanavar Bush, Howard Aiken and John Von Neumann – all leaders computer development in the United States. Warren Weaver suggested that Booth pay a return visit to 1947 as a Rockefeller Fellow at an institution of his choosing. He chose Princeton and Kathleen Britten accompanied him. When they arrived, they found that actually very little was being done when it came to building computers, but there was a lot of theory to take in – especially von Neumann’s architecture. This new knowledge has led to a redesign of ARC, ARC2 and two important articles about it – General considerations in the design of a general-purpose electronic digital computerr and Coding for ARC., the publication in which Kathleen first described her assembly language, or automatic code, for ARC2. She also wrote the assembler for this computer which was redesigned as SEC (Simple Electronic Computer).

assembly language booth

In 1950, the year she and Andrew married, Kathleen earned her doctorate in applied mathematics. In 1953 they co-wrote Automatic digital calculators, which included the general principles involved in the new “Planning and Coding” style of programming. Their next computer design was for the General Purpose Electronic Computer (X), where X could be replaced with the name of any sponsor who found the money to build one! The first was the British Rayon Research Association and that’s how the APE (Rayon) computer was built and successfully operated for the first time on May 2, 1952.

To obtain funding for their work on APE(C)X, the Booths again approached the Rockefeller Foundation, which provided it on the condition that the computer work with human languages ​​as well as mathematics. This machine translation in November 1955 was way ahead of its time, a remarkable feat for a machine with a small amount of memory:

pnl booth

Kathleen wrote her seminal book Programming an automatic digital calculator for APE(C)X computers and was published by Butterworth in 1958.

Also at Birkbeck, the Booths had co-founded the first university department of computer science education the previous year. Then called Department of Digital Automation, it is now Department of Computing and Information Systems. He awarded the first master’s degree in this discipline to Norman Kitz who built the SEC and Kathleen taught programming to undergraduate students – another first.

Credit: CompSci Heroes

In 1962, when a proposal to establish a chair of computer engineering at Birkbeck for Andrew Booth was thwarted, the Booths emigrated to Canada where Kathleen became a research fellow and lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan and, in 1965, director of a national project on automatic language translation. In 1972 the couple moved to Lakehead University in Ontario, where Kathleen was appointed professor of mathematics. Six years later, they retired to Vancouver Island where they founded a computer consulting business.

Kathleen remained active until her retirement, continuing her research into neural networks, begun while still at Birkbeck, where she had designed a program to simulate how animals recognize patterns and had also worked in a neural network for character recognition. In 1993, with her son Ian, she co-wrote an article Using neural networks to identify marine mammals, a few decades before the renewed interest in this field.

kathleen cabin

More information

Kathleen Booth, Computer Pioneer Who Made a Major Breakthrough in Programming – Telegraph obituary

Kathleen Booth: Assembling the first computers while inventing assembly (Hackaday)

A brief history of IT at Birkbeck

Booth and Britten write the first program leading to machine translation; and a novel description of a stored program computer

Related Articles

Andrew Booth and Forgotten Computers

Von Neumann Architecture

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