Mary Lee Woods

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Mary Lee Woods
Mary Lee Woods in 2013.jpg
Mary Lee Woods in 2013
Born(1924-03-12)12 March 1924
Birmingham, England, UK
Died29 November 2017(2017-11-29) (aged 93)[1]
London, England, UK
Alma materUniversity of Birmingham
EmployerTelecommunications Research Establishment, Mount Stromlo Observatory, Ferranti
Spouse(s)Conway Berners-Lee
Parent(s)Bertie John Woods and Ida Frances Lee Burrows

Mary Lee Woods (12 March 1924 – 29 November 2017) was an English mathematician and computer programmer who worked in a team that developed programs in the School of Computer Science, University of Manchester Mark 1, Ferranti Mark 1 and Mark 1 Star computers.[2][3][4] She met and married Conway Berners-Lee while working at Ferranti. Sir Tim Berners-Lee is one of their children.

Early life and education[edit]

She was born in Birmingham in 1924. Her parents were teachers and she had a brother who served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War and was killed in action. She attended Yardley Grammar School in Yardley, Birmingham, where she initially developed a liking for mathematics. From 1942 to 1944, she took a wartime compressed two-year degree course in mathematics at the University of Birmingham. She then worked for the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Malvern until 1946 when she returned to take the third year of her degree. After completing her degree she was offered a fellowship by Richard van der Riet Woolley to work at Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra, Australia, from 1947 to 1951 when she joined Ferranti in Manchester as a computer programmer.

Ferranti computer programming group[edit]

On joining Ferranti she started working in a group led by John Bennett.

She worked on both the Ferranti Mark 1 and the Ferranti Mark 1* computers. Programs were written in machine code. Every bit had to be right; there was plenty of room for error.[5] The machines used serial 40-bit arithmetic (with a double length accumulator).[6] This meant that there were considerable difficulties in scaling the variables in the program to maintain adequate arithmetic precision.[7]

Members of the programming team found it useful to commit to memory the following sequence of characters which represented the numbers 0 to 31 in the International Telegraph Alphabet No. 1 (Baudot) 5-bit binary code of the paper tape that was used for input and output:


Another of the difficulties of programming related to the two-level store of the machines. There were eight pages of Williams cathode ray tube (CRT) random-access memory as fast primary store, and 512 pages of secondary store on a magnetic drum. Each page consisted of 32 40-bit words which appeared as 64 20-bit lines on the CRTs. The programmer had to control all transfers between electronic and magnetic storage, and the transfers were slow and had to be reduced to a minimum. For programs dealing with large chunks of data, such as matrices, partitioning into page-sized chunks could be troublesome.

The Mark 1 machine worked in integer arithmetic and, because of their background in radar, the engineers had built the machine to display the lines on the CRTs with the most significant bit on the right. This could be argued as logically sensible, but was changed for the more conventional system for the Mark 1*, which also worked in fractions, not integers.[7] Also, the Baudot teleprinter code was abandoned for one that was in the following order.[8]


Program errors were difficult to find. Programmers could sit at the machine control desk watching the machine perform one instruction at a time to see where unintended events occurred. However, machine time became more and more valuable so John Bennett suggested that Woods write a diagnostic program to print out the contents of the accumulator and particular store lines at specific points in the program so that diagnosis could take place away from the machine. The challenge of her routine, 'Stopandprint', was that it had to monitor the program under diagnosis without interfering with it, and there was very little space in the fast store.[9] With J M Bennett and D. G. Prinz, she was involved in writing interpretive subroutines that were used by the Ferranti group.[7][10]

Program errors were one problem; machine errors were another. The computer frequently misread the binary digits. The engineers thought the mathematicians could compensate for this by programming arithmetic checks and the mathematicians would too readily assume that a wrong functioning was due to the machine when in fact it was due to a program error. There was inevitable friction between the mathematicians and the engineers. At the centre of this was a program that Woods had written for inverting a matrix to solve 40 simultaneous equations—a large number for those days. The long rows of data took too long for the machine to process without an error. On one occasion she took a dispute to Tom Kilburn, who was second only to Professor Freddy Williams on the engineering side. Kilburn was polite but did not argue and she felt he was ignoring her complaint, but 50 years later when she asked him about this, he said that he had not argued "because I knew you were right".[citation needed]

While at Ferranti, Woods discovered that the women were getting less pay than men. She presented the case to the personnel department and was able to convince them to grant equal pay and rights for women. [11]

Cottage industry programming[edit]

Woods left Ferranti in 1955, when her first child was born. She continued to get involved in smaller programming projects, that she termed "cottage industry programming,"[12] so that she could complete jobs from home. Most notably she did some work with the London Transport Executive, to develop a simulation for bus routes that could prevent hold ups and bus bunching. She also developed a program for the RAF at Boscombe Down to track weather balloons and translate their readings. Then she came out of retirement in 1963 to work for a London-based company called K and H. While at K and H she wrote programming manuals until she retired in 1987.

Personal life[edit]

She was married to Conway Berners-Lee whom she met while working in the Ferranti team. Their eldest son, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, invented the World Wide Web.[13][14][15]

After a period devoted to bringing up children, she became a schoolteacher of mathematics and then a programmer using BASIC, Fortran and other languages before retiring in 1987. She died in November 2017 at the age of 93.[16][12]


  1. ^ "Mary Lee Berners-Lee: Pioneering computer programmer whose son invented the world wide web", The Times, p. 77, 20 January 2018
  2. ^ "Scientific pioneers honoured by The University of Manchester – The University of Manchester". Retrieved 23 January 2018.
  3. ^ "I am Tim Berners-Lee. I invented the WWW 25 years ago and I am concerned and excited about its future. AMA • r/IAmA". reddit. Retrieved 23 January 2018.
  4. ^ Conway and Mary Lee Berners-Lee, interviewed by Thomas Lean, 2010–2011, An Oral History of British Science, British Library Sound & Moving Image reference C1379/23 Audio and Transcript (at British Library only but brief Content summary available online).
  5. ^ The University of Manchester (1999), Programming on the Ferranti Mark 1, archived from the original on 5 July 2009, retrieved 12 November 2009
  6. ^ The University of Manchester (1999), The Manchester Mark 1, archived from the original on 29 December 2008, retrieved 12 November 2009
  7. ^ a b c Campbell-Kelly, Martin (1980). "Programming the Mark I: Early Programming Activity at the University of Manchester". Annals of the History of Computing. American Federation of Information Processing Societies. 2 (2): 155. doi:10.1109/mahc.1980.10018.
  8. ^ The University of Manchester (2008). "The Ferranti Mark 1*". Archived from the original on 15 May 2009. Retrieved 12 November 2009.
  9. ^ J. M., Bennett, "Comments on Programming the Manchester Mark I", Annals of the History of Computing, 3 (2), doi:10.1109/MAHC.1981.10014
  10. ^ Bennett, J. M.; Prinz, D.G.; Woods, M. L. (1952), "Interpretative sub-routines", Proc. ACM Nat. Conf., Toronto, pp. 81–87, doi:10.1145/800259.809002
  11. ^ Abbate, Janet, Recoding Gender
  12. ^ a b Ferry, Georgina (23 January 2018). "Mary Lee Berners-Lee obituary". the Guardian. Retrieved 23 January 2018.
  13. ^ Berners-Lee, Tim; Fischetti, Mark (1999), Weaving the Web: The Past, Present and Future of the World Wide Web by its Inventor, London: Orion Business, ISBN 978-0-7528-2090-3
  14. ^ Bellis, Mary, Father of the Internet Tim Berners-Lee, retrieved 10 November 2009
  15. ^ "Mary Lee Berners-Lee". The British Library.
  16. ^ News Bulletin from the Parish of SS Alban & Stephen (PDF), 24–25 December 2017