Engineer of the Week No. 39: Kathleen Hylda Valerie Booth (nee Britten),BSc PhD (9th July 1922-)
Today we remember Kathleen Booth, mathematician engineer, pioneer computer designer, and author.
Kathleen Booth was a computing pioneer, who helped with the crystallography analysis that contributed to the DNA structure, was a co-designer of one of the first 3 operational computers in the world, and author of 2 of the earliest books on computer design and programming.
Raised in the English Midlands, where her father was an inspector of taxes, she went to Royal Holloway College in the midst of the 2nd World War, and gained a BSc in maths. As with so many women maths graduates, her first job was as a junior scientific officer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. Her work there in the Structures Department resulted in a report on the structural performance of a wood-metal composite, Dural-celluboard, which presumably was being considered for airframe construction purposes.
After the war she joined a team of other women mathematicians undertaking calculations for the team analysing the X-ray crystallography which contributed to the discovery of the double helix shape of DNA. She worked in Andrew Booth’s team at Birkbeck College but the space constraints there moved them to the premises of the British Rubber Producers Research Association which was sponsoring their work and paid for the development of the ARC computer for this project. In 1947 she started her PhD which she gained from Birkbeck in 1950. During this period she was sent as Andrew Booth’s research assistant to the USA for 6 months by their boss JD Bernalon a Rockefeller Foundation grant to meet computer pioneers in the USA and in 1950 she married Andrew with whom she collaborated professionally from then onwards.
She co-authored "General Considerations in the Design of an All Purpose Electronic Digital Computer," and devised the ARC assembly language for their computer, the Automatic Relay Calculator. Until 1962 she was a research fellow and lecturer, at Birkbeck College, during which time she published one of her seminal books: Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator. This, with Alan Turing’s ACE and Winifred Hackett’s Deuce, was one of the 3 first computers.
Then she and her husband emigrated to Canada where she became a research fellow and lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan, and in 1965 she became the director of a national project on machine translation of language. When the 2nd International Conference of Women in Engineering and Science was held in 1967, Kathleen represented Canada and undertook a survey of the attitudes towards women in engineering at the time. In 1972 she and Andrew moved to the Lakehead University, Ontario, where she was appointed professor of maths, and in 1978 they set up their own company, Autonetics Research Associates, of which she was the CEO. Even in retirement she is still publishing, co-authoring a paper on ‘Using neural nets to identify marine mammals’andmemoirs with her husband, ‘The beginnings of MT’.