Beatrice Helen Worsley: a life of firsts

Being first at something is usually a big deal. We like people who finish first, and we even like people who start first.

Beatrice Helen Worsley, who completed undergraduate studies in mathematics and physics in Canada at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College in 1944, “is believed to be the first woman in the world to earn a doctorate in computer science and Canada’s first female computer scientist”, according to an article on the school’s website.

A 2003 article published by the US-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Annals of the History of Computing says Worsley’s dissertation, ‘Serial Programming for Real and Idealised Digital Calculating Machines’, “is believed to be the first PhD dissertation involving modern computers”.

In its entry for Worsley, the Canadian Encyclopedia includes a lovely little factoid about her career in which she was not first: “In 1948, Beatrice Worsley built a differential analyser (an early mechanical analog computer that could solve equations) using Meccano parts. She wasn’t the first researcher to build a computer using pieces from the model construction set (Meccano sets have been sold since 1901) … It’s estimated that about 15 such machines were built around the world. The Meccano machines were relatively cheap to build and accurate enough to solve many scientific problems.”

For the uninitiated, Meccano was a constructive toy invented in Britain by Liverpool office worker Frank Hornby. Sets included reusable metal strips, plates, angled pieces, axles, wheels and gears, all of which could be connected using nuts and bolts.

Worsley was born on 18 October 1921 in Queretaro, Mexico, where her British-born father, Joel Worsley, owned a textile mill. Her mother’s name was Beatrice Marie, so young Beatrice Helen became known to family, friends and colleagues as Trixie.

In 1929 the family left Mexico and moved to Toronto, where Trixie attended the Bishop Strachan School, a private university-prep facility for women. She excelled in maths, physics, and “general proficiency”, notes the Canadian Encyclopedia.

In 1939 she began studies at Trinity College at the University of Toronto. After completing her undergraduate studies in mathematics and physics in 1944, she enlisted in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service.

Rising to the rank of lieutenant, she worked as a harbour defense researcher, developing ways to reduce ships’ magnetic signatures to protect them from German magnetic mines.

After WWII ended in 1945, Worsley remained in the navy, conducting research on ships’ hull corrosion.

Leaving the navy in 1946, she began a one-year master’s program in mathematics and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. This proved to be the “launching point for her computing career”, according to the IEEE.

It says her coursework included solid-state physics, mechanical principles, an applied electronics course on feedback amplifier design, and a function theory course with Henry Wallman, a member of “the famed MIT Radiation Laboratory and the supervisor of Worsley’s master’s thesis”.

The IEEE says that her thesis, ‘A Mathematical Survey of Computing Devices with an Appendix on an Error Analysis of Differential Analyzers’, “provides a fascinating snapshot of contemporary computing technology”, and “compared the features and characteristics of many continuous and discrete computing devices completed, under construction, or planned”.

Worsley returned to Canada in 1947 but the next year was sent to the University of Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory in Britain to study and work with the electronic delay storage automatic calculator (EDSAC), the construction of which had been started by Maurice Wilkes the previous year.

While in Cambridge, she took up doctoral studies in mathematical physics at Newnham College, where she was supervised by Wilkes and renowned computer scientist Alan Turing.

Worsley started writing her dissertation at Cambridge, but in 1951 returned to Canada with the work unfinished. Back at the University of Toronto, she finished the writing and was awarded her groundbreaking doctorate in 1952.

In that same year, the Canadian Defense Research Board and National Research Council bought a completed computer system – the Ferranti Mark I – from Ferranti Ltd, a venerable British electrical engineering company. “It would be Canada’s first fully functional electronic computer,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Worsley took charge of the Mark I, operating the console and giving it the name ‘Ferut’ (Ferranti computer at the University of Toronto).

Worsley also ran courses on operating Ferut, but it proved extremely difficult to program, so in 1953 she, along with professor JN Patterson Hume, wrote Transcode, which the Canadian Encyclopedia describes as “a highly successful automatic coding system that made programming easier for users because they could write instructions for Ferut in a simplified language”.

Worsley went on to write and publish 17 technical papers between 1952 and 1964, most about the use of Transcode for specific problems and calculations. In 1971 she settled at Ontario’s University of Waterloo to conduct research in the Department of Applied Analysis and Computer Science, working on assembly language and its relation to computer structure. While there, she died of a heart attack on 8 May 1972, aged 50.

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