The "Ferut" Memory Tube and Canada's First Woman Computer Scientist

Williams memory tube of the Ferranti Mark I computer ("Ferut") c.1951

"Ferut" William's memory tube (c.1951), CSTM Collections, Ottawa ON 

Williams memory tube of the Ferranti Mark I computer ("Ferut") c.1951

"Ferut" Williams memory tube (c.1951) with original box, CSTM Collections, Ottawa ON

By Beth A. Robertson

 

Listed as a “Williams Memory Tube” in the stored collection of the Canadian Science and Technology Museum, this beautiful glass object played an interesting, even central role in the history of computing in Canada. It served as the memory tube of a Ferranti Mark I computer that in October 1951 was obtained by the University of Toronto’s Computation Center—one of the earliest research centres of its kind in North America. One reason why one can identify this provenance is due to a word associated with the tube, noted in the finding aid file:  “Ferut”. What may not be obvious is that “Ferut” represents “Ferranti Computer at the University of Toronto”. There was only one “Ferut” and the memory tube was one of its primary components.

The individual who initially nicknamed the computer “Ferut” was Dr. Beatrice Helen Worsley. Trained at MIT and Cambridge, Worsley’s Ph.D. thesis was quite possibly one of the first to deal directly with modern computers. By the time she graduated in the early 1950s, Scott Campbell has written that Worsley “was one of the most computer-literate women in the world”, who would continue to make significant contributions to the field.[1] Upon returning to Toronto from the U.K., she operated the console of the then nicknamed Ferut when it was first installed at the University of Toronto Computation Centre. The computer proved near impossible to program, prompting Worsley to co-write an automatic code for the system—a project she and her colleague J.N. Patterson referred to as “Transcode”.  Although the Ferut was still considered slow, “Transcode” was heralded as a success in making the computer usable and effective.[2]

The interconnected histories of Worsley with the Ferut and its memory tube may come as a surprise to contemporary readers. As Nathan Ensmenger reminds us, the stereotype of the ‘computer geek’ is largely that of an asocial male, offering perhaps a false impression that women only gained access to the profession much later.[3] This stereotype was built as a result of a number of factors, including the marginalization of women in the field. Although women played a central role in the early computing industry, Janet Abbate argues that “these women’s experiences and contributions were forgotten all too quickly” as computing emerged as a profession during the Cold War years.[4] The memory tube, perhaps fittingly, remains as a testament to this history.  

 


[1] Scott Campbell, “Beatrice Helen Worsley: Canada’s Female Computer Pioneer,” IEE Annals of the History of Computer 17, issue 4 (2004): 56.

[2] Ibid., 57-58.

[3] Nathan Ensmenger, The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers and the Politics of Expertise (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), 2.

[4] Janet Abbate, Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 1.

The "Ferut" Memory Tube and Canada's First Woman Computer Scientist