Engineer of the Week No. 59: Hilary Jeanette Kahn (Mrs Napper) BA, PGDipl (11th July 1943 - 4th November 2007)
On her 76th birthday we remember Hilary Kahn, pioneering software engineer who laid the basis for CAD for engineers of today.
Hilary Kahn was a software engineer, a career she arrived at almost by accident. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1960 she left to get away from the apartheid politics of that era and, with her mother’s support, came to the UK, where she spent a year getting the A-levels she needed to go to university. She went to Bedford College University of London and graduated with a classics degree in Latin and Greek in 1964, with the idea of becoming an archaeologist. Not being able to find a job she happened to see an advert for computing postgraduate course at University of Newcastle and with no real idea of what it might be, applied thinking it looked interesting. Due to her lack of maths she was put into the Diploma in Business Processing, where she learnt COBOL (and Algol from a book), whilst also being one of the students who ran the university’s computing service in the evenings. The university’s computer was a KDF 9 machine from English Electric, descended from their earlier DEUCE machines (see Winifred Hackett’s involvement with those). Her diploma was supported by funding from English Electric in Kidsgrove, in return for which she had to work for them for a year after her graduation in 1965.
At English Electric Hilary worked on peripheral controller software for a computer called the System IV, which was based on the UNIVAC and the IBM 360. She found this was more or less undocumented and she was expected to identify and resolve any problems. There were some other women in more senior positions than Hilary and they were all still subject to the prohibition on women working at nights in factories.
In 1967 she was appointed as an assistant lecturer in computing at the University of Manchester where she worked for the remainder of her career, rising in 1995 to become that university’s first female professor. Her specialism was Computer Aided Design and Software Engineering, which arose when the university asked her to test software for memory systems and to develop a logic simulator for use in the design of the Manchester MU5 computer system. This involved the development of techniques for the integration of CAD tools. Her work on the Manchester MU5 was important as it was the basis of the ICL 2900 "New Range" computers which sold internationally.
Hilary started the CAD group in the Department of Computer Science and became involved in developing standards, looking at integration issues in CAD and information modelling for large engineering systems.
Hilary was involved in many national projects and standards groups, such as that for the Electronic Design Interchange Format (EDIF), where she chaired its Technical Experts Group and was a member of the EDIF Steering Committee. Examples of such work include creating a formal model of the Printed Circuit Fabrication and Assembly industry's requirements for design data for manufacture, serving on the BSI GEL/93 committee, and KLICON which supports information modelling for the construction industry. Internationally she was also chair of the IEC TC93 working group, responsible for international standards in Electronic Design Automation.
She also took a great interest in the history of computing and conservation of older machines and in 1998 Hilary (helped by her husband, Dr Brian Napper) organised the celebrations for the 50th Anniversary of the World's First Stored Program Computer – the ‘Manchester Baby’. Hilary published 19 technical papers and contributed to obituaries of colleagues in the field. She retired in 2006 and died in 2007, following a long illness.