Engineer of the Week No.92: Dina St Johnston (née Aldrina Nia Vaughan) (20th September 1930 - 1st July 2007)
Today we remember Dina St Johnston, the founder of the UK’s first independent software house.
Aldrina Nia Vaughan was born in south London in 1930 and educated at the Selhurst Grammar School for Girls. Although her parents wanted her to stay on and go to university she chose to leave school at 16 for a job with the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association. She studied part-time at Croydon Polytechnic andthen at Sir John Cass College, gaining an external London University degree in Mathematics. In 1953 she moved to Borehamwood Laboratories of Elliott Brothers (London) Ltd, where she worked in the Theory Division. It had a primitive computer called the Nicholas so she was sent on a short course in programming, at Cambridge, from which she quickly demonstrated a real flair. By 1954 she was responsible for the programming of the Elliott 153 Direction Finding (DF) digital computer for the Admiralty and soon after for programming Elliott’s own payroll computer. Her work was said to have been inventive and structured, but also very accurate, hardly ever requiring ‘de-bugging’.
In 1958 she married the head of the computing department, Andrew St Johnston, and left Elliotts to set up her own software company, Vaughan, recognised at the time as the first such enterprise in the UK. Dina had recognised that as the pioneering computers moved out of the rarified science environments and into general business and industry, hardly anyone in the latter sectors had the skills or the time to develop the skills, to programme their new computers. She employed a few programmers, men with similar backgrounds to her own and her first contracts came via Elliotts, as they were among the first to produce computer hardware for business use. Very significant contracts came to her, such as programming early nuclear power stations, but in 1970 she branched out into hardware, producing her own computer, the 4M, and the company changed its name to Vaughan
Systems and Programming in 1975 to reflect the new area of work. The company was growing fast and Dina was unusual for the time in taking on trainees with no prior experience.
By the 1990s the company’s principal contract was for British Rail, ushering in a new era of real-time Train Describers which track train movements within a Signal box area and display the positions of trains on the main signalling panel, or on screens. In 1996 Vaughan Systems Ltd was sold to Harmon Industries, an American railway signalling company and, in 1999, Dina retired.
The majority of this profile of Dina has been gleaned from an extensive obituary, by Simon Lavington (to whom I am indebted for bringing Dina’s amazing story to my attention), published in The Computer Journal (2009) 52 (3): 378-387, which includes a detailed list of her work.