Women's History Month: Beatrice Worsley

October 09, 2018

Written by: Alicen Ricard

For our second Women’s History Month post, we’re profiling a woman in technology who was the first woman in Canada to become a computer scientist. She paved the way for the field in Canada, and even taught computer science for years. Although she died young, Beatrice Worsley left behind a computer legacy.

Source: University of Toronto

She was born on October 18, 1921 in Querétaro, Mexico. Her parents moved the family to Toronto when she was eight so her and her bother could have better schooling. She earned numerous awards for math and science in high school, as well as the Governor General’s award. She was also awarded multiple scholarships, and attended Trinity College (a part of the University of Toronto). After school she enlisted in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) instead. She studied harbour defences, degaussing, and torpedo guidance. She was assigned to the Naval Research Establishment (NRE) in Halifax, and remained in service after the war. She was promoted to Lieutenant in 1945. She spent almost a year out at sea working on a research project on Hull corrosion.

After she decided to leave service, she did a year-long Masters program in mathematics and physics at MIT. Under her mentor Henry Wallman, who was a member of the MIT Radiation Lab, she wrote her thesis “A Mathematical Survey of Computing Devices with an Appendix on Error Analysis of Differential Analyzers”. The paper covered almost every computing machine of the time.  

Source: Queen's Archives

After getting her Masters she moved back to Canada to pursue computing. However, there was no real computer industry in Canada yet so she took a job in the aerodynamics department of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC).  Then the University of Toronto started a computing department and she applied for a position to run an IBM Punch Card Mechanical Calculator. Along with that, she also worked with Atomic Energy of Canada (AEC), providing computer support. She built a differential analyser from Meccano parts and once she finished she was sent to the UK, alone with colleague Perham Stanley, to learn about EDSAC design and help get it running. While she was there she started her PhD at Newnham College and did her dissertation on “Serial Programming for Real and Idealized Digital Calculating Machines”. It was the first known paper on modern computers.

After Worsley returned to Canada, the computing centre went to the NRC with plans to make a copy of the Bell Labs Mark 6 relay-based computer. The NRC was reluctant, but finally gave them the go-ahead. However, when they had to ask for more funding the NRC told them to drop the project and build an electronic version instead. Eventually, the university and NRC planned to get another computer and purchased a Ferranti machine which Worsley called FERUT (Ferranti Electronic Computer at the University of Toronto). Worsley and colleague developed a language called transcode for the machine.

Despite all her success, Beatrice Worsley was passed up for promotion at the university, and got less recognition than others at the computing centre. It took until 1960 to be promoted from staff to assistant professor, and until 1964 to be promoted to assistant professor of physics and computer science. Finally, she was offered a job by Queens University in 1965 to launch a new computing centre based on an IBM 1620. She worked with it for a while, but by 1971 most of her time was taken up teaching. A year later she died from a heart attack, but she will not be forgotten as a pioneer of computer science in Canada. She was honoured with a lifetime acheivement award from the Canadian Association of Computer Science in 2014, forty-two years after she died.

What Canadian women who were the first in their fields inspired you? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter.