Margaret Masterman

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Margaret Masterman (Braithwaite)
Born (1910-05-04)4 May 1910
Died 1 April 1986(1986-04-01) (aged 75)
Residence United Kingdom
Nationality British
Fields Computational linguistics
Known for Cambridge Language Research Unit

Margaret Masterman (4 May 1910 – 1 April 1986) was a British linguist and philosopher, most known for her pioneering work in the field of computational linguistics and especially machine translation.


Margaret Masterman was born in London on 4 May 1910 to Charles F. G. Masterman, a politician, and Lucy Blanche Lyttelton, a politician, poet and writer. In 1932 she married Richard Bevan Braithwaite, a philosopher. They had a son and a daughter.


Margaret Masterman was one of six students in Wittgenstein's course of 1933–34 whose notes were compiled as The Blue Book. In 1955 she founded and directed the Cambridge Language Research Unit (CLRU), which grew from an informal discussion group to a major research center in computational linguistics in its time.

The Cambridge Language Research Unit was founded in a small but beautiful building called Adie's Museum which had housed far eastern art: small buddhist sculptures were built into its walls and carved doors. For a period of twenty years it was, improbably, a source of significant research in machine translation, computational linguistics, and quantum physics even though outside the official university structures in Cambridge. It was funded by grants from US agencies (AFOSR, ONR, NSF), UK Government agencies (OSTI) and later, from EU funds in Luxembourg.Its computing facilities were primitive—an ancient ICL 1202 computer---and most of its more serious computation was done either on the Cambridge university machine, in the then Mathematical Laboratory—or at CLRU visitors visiting sites in the US. One measure of its impact, and from a staff that never exceeded ten people, was that of the Annual Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Association for Computational Linguistics in the US, three have been awarded to CLRU alumni: Martin Kay, Karen Sparck Jones and Yorick Wilks.

Margaret restarted the CLRU in 1980 with William Williams[1] in the hope that the new breed of micro-computers could be used to develop her algorithms for natural language translation. Margaret walked the 7 miles from Millington Road in Cambridge to Orwell and purchased two North Star Horizon computers from Intelligent Artefacts (see ST Robotics). These were installed with the Forth programming language, written by David Sands and used by various students from the University of Cambridge who programmed Margaret's algorithms into the computers. Margaret's approach to natural language translation at this time was to split a sentence into segments she called "breath groups". Since each breath group had a unique meaning it could be translated into the target language and the target sentence reconstructed using the translated breath groups. This contrasted with the predominant language translation techniques of the time, notably Systran which used a dictionary and rule based system.

When Margaret died in 1986 William Williams was forced to close down the CLRU and the research has never been continued.

She was one of cofounders of Lucy Cavendish College and its first Vice-President (1965–1975). She was a great-niece of Lucy Cavendish after whom the college is named.

In 1965, Margaret Masterman read the work: "The Nature of a Paradigm" at the Fourth International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, in London.[2] She criticised Thomas Kuhn for his use of the concept "Paradigm". This criticism was accepted by Thomas Kuhn and was crucial in the shift of the concept "Paradigm" to "Incommensurability".[3]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Masterman, Margaret (1970) [1965], "The Nature of a Paradigm", in Lakatos, Imre; Musgrave, Alan, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, Proceedings of the 1965 International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science 4 (3 ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 59–90, ISBN 9780521096232 
  3. ^ Kuhn, T. S. (1970) [1969], "Reflections on my Critics", in Lakatos, Imre; Musgrave, Alan, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, Proceedings of the 1965 International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science 4 (3 ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 231–278, ISBN 9780521096232