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

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 25/10/2022 Telegraph Obituaries
Kathleen Booth in the 1950s loading a program into the Apexc computer that she co-designed with her husband Andrew - family © family Kathleen Booth in the 1950s loading a program into the Apexc computer that she co-designed with her husband Andrew - family

Kathleen Booth, who has died aged 100, co-designed of one of the world’s first operational computers and wrote two of the earliest books on computer design and programming; she was also credited with the invention of the first “assembly language”, a programming language designed to be readable by users.

Originally computer programs were written in machine code – sequences of binary ones and zeros – and reprogramming was a laborious process involving much rewiring and changes of switches. Assembly languages made the whole process much easier, the instructions in the language being converted into machine code by a program called an assembler.

Assembly languages revolutionised computer programming, and although they are described as “low-level” (most programming languages these days are “high-level”), they still have important applications in computing, including enabling programmers to manipulate hardware directly.

The second of three children, Kathleen Hylda Valerie Britten was born on July 9 1922 to Frederick Britten, a tax inspector, and Gladys, née Kitchen. From King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham, she went up to Royal Holloway College during the Second World War to read Mathematics.

On graduation in 1944 she became a junior scientific officer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, carrying out structural tests on materials for use in aircraft manufacture.

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. The team was housed in premises of the British Rubber Producers Research Association (BRPRA) which was sponsoring the work.

To help the number-crunching involved Booth had embarked on building a computing machine called the Automatic Relay Calculator or ARC, and in 1947 Kathleen accompanied him on a six-month visit to Princeton University, where they consulted John von Neumann, who had developed the idea of storing programs in a computer.

Kathleen Booth working with her husband Andrew in the 1940s - family © Provided by The Telegraph Kathleen Booth working with her husband Andrew in the 1940s - family

On their return to England they co-wrote General Considerations in the Design of an All Purpose Electronic Digital Computer, and went on to make modifications to the original ARC to incorporate the lessons learnt. Kathleen devised the ARC assembly language for the computer and designed the assembler.

In 1950 Kathleen took a PhD in applied mathematics and the same year she and Andrew Booth were married. In 1953 they cowrote Automatic Digital Calculators, which included the general principles involved in the new “Planning and Coding”programming style.

The Booths remained at Birkbeck until 1962 working on other computer designs including the All Purpose Electronic (X) Computer (Apexc, the forerunner of the ICT 1200 computer which became a bestseller in the 1960s), for which Kathleen published the seminal Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator in 1958. The previous year she and her husband had co-founded the School of Computer Science and Information Systems at Birkbeck.

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In 1962, however, frustrated at the college’s failure to appoint Andrew to a professorial chair, the Booths emigrated to Canada 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, carrying out research into neural networks which led to the development of a program to simulate the ways animals recognise patterns.

Her husband died in 2009 and she is survived by their son and daughter.

Kathleen Booth born July 9 1922, died September 29 2022

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