Computer Pioneer Kathleen Booth Dies At Age 100
Written by Sue Gee   
Sunday, 30 October 2022

Kathleen Booth, who died last month, had a remarkable career in which she achieved many firsts. She is credited with the first assembly language, founding and teaching in the first university computer science department and research into natural language translation and neural networks well ahead of her time.

If the name Kathleen Booth fails to ring any bells this is because her fame was eclipsed by her husband Andrew Booth. However, apart from the algorithm that bears his name, much of what he is remembered for was a joint enterprise. The fact that she co-designed and built the ARC, one of the very first operational computers, is recorded in our history article, Andrew Booth and the Forgotten Computers, but as far are Kathleen is concerned that is almost all that is said. This article hopes to redress the balance.

Kathleen Hylda Valerie Britten was born in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, a market town on the River Severn but during her teenage years attended King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham which then, as now, had an outstanding academic record. She went on to obtain a BSc in Mathematics from Royal Holloway College, part of  the University of London in 1944. On graduation she spent two years at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough as a Junior Scientific Officer carrying out structural tests on materials for use in aircraft manufacture and then in 1946 she joined a team of mathematicians under Andrew Booth at Birkbeck College undertaking calculations for the scientists working on the X-ray crystallography images which contributed to the discovery of the double helix shape of DNA. 

To help with the number-crunching involved Andrew Booth was intent on building a computing machine and had started on a design for the ARC, the  Automatic Relay Computer. This was no general purpose computer. It was specifically designed to do Fourier synthesis, an essential step in determining a crystal’s structure and while it was Andrew's design it was Kathleen who did the construction, together with another female assistant, Xenia Sweeting.

kathleenbooth

Kathleen Britten, Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth
working on ARC in December 1946

In a visit to the United States in 1946 to see the progress being made with computer technology Andrew Booth had met Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation, Jay Forrester, Vanavar Bush, Howard Aiken and John Von Neumann - all leading lights in US computer development.  Warren Weaver suggested that Booth pay a return visit in 1947 as a Rockefeller Fellow at an institution of his choice. He chose Princeton and and Kathleen Britten accompanied him. When they arrived they found that actually very little was going on by way of computer construction but there was a lot of theory to absorb - in particular von Neumann architecture. This new knowledge led to a redesign of the ARC, the ARC2 and two important papers about it -   General considerations in the design of an all-purpose electronic digital computer and Coding for A.R.C., the publication in which Kathleen first outlined her assembly language, or autocode, for ARC2. She also wrote the assembler for it this computer which was redesigned as the SEC (Simple Electronic Computer). 

assemblylanguage booth

In 1950, the year in which she and Andrew were married, Kathleen gained her PhD in applied mathematics. In 1953 they co-wrote Automatic Digital Calculators, which included the general principles involved in the new “Planning and Coding” programming style. Their next computer design was for the  All-purpose Electronic (X) Computer, where X could be replaced by the name of any sponsor who came up with the money to build one! The first was the British Rayon Research Association and so the APE(Rayon) Computer was built and operated successfully for the first time on 2nd May 1952.

To secure funding for their work on APE(C)X, the Booths again went to the Rockefeller Foundation, which provided it on condition that the computer worked with human languages as well as just mathematics. This machine translation in November 1955 was well ahead of its time, a remarkable feat for a machine with a tiny amount of memory:

nlp booth

 

Kathleen wrote her seminal book Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator for the APE(C)X computers and it was published by Butterworth in 1958.

Still at Birkbeck, the previous year the Booths had co-founded the first university department for teaching computing. Then called the Department of Numerical Automation it is now  Department of Computer Science and Information Systems. It awarded the first Master's degree in this discipline to Norman Kitz who built the SEC and Kathleen taught programming to undergraduates - another first. 

Credit: CompSci Heroes 

In 1962, when a proposal to establish a chair of Computer Engineering at Birkbeck for Andrew Booth was thwarted, the Booths emigrated to Canada where where Kathleen became a research fellow and lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan, and in 1965 director of a national project on machine translation of language. In 1972 the couple moved to the Lakehead University, Ontario, where Kathleen was appointed professor of mathematics. Six years later they retired to Vancouver Island where they founded a computer consulting business.

Kathleen remained active into her retirement, continuing with her research into neural networks, started while still at Birkbeck, where she had devised a program to simulate the ways animals recognize patterns and had also worked in a neural network for character recognition. In 1993 with her son Ian, she co-authored a paper Using neural nets to identify marine mammals, a couple of decades before the re-emergence of interest in this area.

kathleen booth

More Information

Kathleen Booth, computer pioneer who made a major breakthrough in programming – Telegraph obituary 

Kathleen Booth: Assembling Early Computers While Inventing Assembly (Hackaday)

A short history of Computer Science at Birkbeck

Booth & Britten Write the Earliest Program Leading toward Machine Translation; and a Pioneering Description of a Stored-Program Computer

Related Articles

Andrew Booth and the Forgotten Computers

Von Neumann Architecture

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Last Updated ( Monday, 31 October 2022 )