First female corporate computer programmer dies

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Mary Clare Coombs, née Blood, born February 4, 1929, died of complications from a Covid-19 infection.

Combs first joined Lyons & Co in 1952 as a management trainee, following a holiday job arranged for her by her father, the company’s chief medical officer. Initially, she was put to work in the company’s statistics office, operating a calculating machine, but was soon offered the opportunity to join the Lyon Electronic Office (LEO) team, writing programs for the world’s first professional computer.

Recalling his experience working on the LEO, Coombs said, “We were all on a great adventure.” She joined the IT team when there were only three programmers on board – all male – becoming the only female in a class of 12 to take an introductory IT course. From there, he moved straight into payroll applications for a rapidly growing range of external clients, as well as developing programs for internal company use.

It was a huge challenge. Not only had much of the work never been done before, she also said it involved working on a notoriously unreliable valve computer that had only 2KB of computer storage compared to the many gigabytes available. for today’s programmers.

“When it was LEO 1, you had to know a lot about the machine itself because there was so little storage space that every instruction had to be essential, or it had to be deleted,” she said. .

Alongside programming at LEO, she has also worked as a programmer, handling payroll at companies such as Ford Motor Company, and was involved in a variety of jobs, including tax tables for the Inland Revenue, Met Office work and calculating ballistics for the military. She then became a supervisor and worked to locate and fix coding errors in programs created by others.

Family commitments meant that she stopped programming full-time in 1964, but continued to work part-time editing computer textbooks and, for a few months, ran a course in computer programming for severely disabled residents at the Princess Marina Centre, Seer Green, jointly sponsored by ICL and Buckinghamshire County Council.

It was not until late 1969 that she ended her official relationship with the LEO team.

Coombs returned to full-time employment in September 1973 as a primary school teacher, completing a three-year postgraduate teaching course in 1976. She retired from teaching in 1985 and subsequently worked as a buyer in the water treatment industry.

In 1955 she married John Coombs, himself briefly a computer programmer for the LEO team, who died in 2012. Together they had one daughter, Anne, who died aged six. Between 1965 and 1969 they adopted three children, Andrew, Paul and Gillian. They survive him, as do a younger sister, Ruth, and three grandchildren, Grace, Jemma and John.

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