Engineer of the Week No. 89 Judy Butland (née Whiteley) MPhil (6th October 1940 - January 2019)
Today on what would have been her 79th birthday we remember Judy Butland, an engineering software designer who pioneered the use of computers at universities, her ‘Butland curves’ software still being in use.
Born in Leeds, Judy’s lifelong struggle with severe arthritis interrupted her schooling but with a year at the local technical college she gained enough A-levels to start on a maths honours degree course at the University of Manchester. She found the lectures boring and did not complete her degree but in 1964 she married fellow student David Butland.
Her first job was in the Information and Exchange section at AEI, Manchester, producing a weekly bulletin of technical articles and papers from engineering publications. In 1967 she was taken on at Manchester Business School as mathematical assistant to Dr Winifred Hackett, an aeronautical engineer. Hackett suggested that she might see whether computers would be useful for her research into the scheduling of the work flow in aeroplane production. The project entailed statistical analysis, which required complex calculations, so Hackett sent Judy to lectures on the principles of computing. The two women got along very well and this proved to be the start of Judy’s career in software engineering and she started to become computing advisor to other groups in the Business School, including a project with the Librarian to automate the classification of publications.
Her next job was in the Postgraduate School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Bradford (where her husband had also just found work), where they needed someone to supervise programming in research projects. University computing was at a very elementary level in those days and in many ways Judy did not immediately realise how innovative her work was. She developed a comprehensive set of tools to produce technical charts from research data, and made them freely available and it was soon being used in many universities. She wrote up the work she had been doing, and was awarded an M.Phil for her thesis. When she wrote an article about her work in an American electrical engineering publication, she had many requests for it from all over the world. The university soon realised that she was giving this software away so Judy set up a company to formalise the distribution, Bradford University Software Services (BUSS), and it was soon making enough money to take on staff, while she spent her time programming. She published a number of academic papers, including one on drawing a smooth curve though an arbitrary set of data points – a calculation that became known as Butland’s Algorithm. This is still in use today and a successor company, BUSS2, produces it as a smartphone app.
Judy’s very severe arthritis inhibited her later years and her last paid work in computing was to develop an internet-based interface to control a robotic telescope on Oxenhope Moor. In her retirement, she and her husband kept chickens, were involved in the local Scouts and continued to travel until her arthritis prevented it. She died in 2019 and her family have produced a very detailed biography online ( https://jbrip.home.blog/ ) from which the majority of the information for this profile has been taken.