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Shiela Wharton: Interview, 21 June 2019 70687

 Home > LEO Computers > LEOPEDIA > Oral & Narrative Histories > Shiela Wharton: Inter ... w, 21 June 2019 70687

Shiela Wharton and LEO Computers Society

Digital audio of a recorded interview with Shiela Wharton (Shiela Milne), who joined LEO Computers in 1961 as a programmer.

Interviewer: John Daines
Date of interview: 21 June 2019
Length of recording: 40m20s
Format: 1 original .mp3 recording 13.87MB (transferred to .mp4 video for presentation on YouTube 134.37MB)
Copyright in recording content: Shiela Wharton and LEO Computers Society

Transcript editor: unknown

Abstract:  Joined LEO Computers in 1961 as a programmer working on the Master Routine for the prototype LEO III (LEO III/1). Later worked on Spectra (System 4) in America with RCA, before returning to the UK and moving to Kidsgrove to work on System 4 operating systems. After having children, continued to work in programming from home for Home Programmers, which was run by former Kidsgrove colleague Hilary Cropper (later of F International), working on programs for English Electric and then ICL.

Date : 21st June 2019

Physical Description : 1 digital file, audio

Transcript :

Speaker key
JD	John Daines
SW	Shiela Wharton

JD	It’s the 21st of June 2019, and I’m John Daines.  I’m interviewing Shiela Wharton, née Milne, to give us the story of her involvement with LEO Computers from the earliest days.
Good afternoon, Shiela.  We’re recording this interview as part of the LEO Computer Society Oral History Project.  The oral version and the transcript will be lodged in the central archive made available for researchers and members of the public.  Perhaps you’d like to introduce yourself.
SW	Hello, I’m Shiela Wharton, née Milne.
SW	I was born in Kidbrooke in London six months before the war.  During the war, we were moved down to Ammanford with my father’s school.  He was a teacher at the Roan School for Boys, and my sister was at her own school for girls.  Both were evacuated to Ammanford and shared a school there.  We were deposited and lived with other families, initially me with my parents.  My sister was farmed out elsewhere.  But my parents did get a house eventually, and we were all together.  But we had a spare room, and my sister’s headmistress was put to live with us, which I’m sure delighted my sister.
SW	But we came to London before the end of the war.  So, they must have decided it was relatively safe.  But there were still V2s going over.  There was a bomb down the end of the road, which I remember.  We were under a tabletop air raid shelter which three of us could get under (Editor: probably a Morrison Shelter provided in kit form to households. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_raid_shelter#Morrison_shelter). I went to a local infant school.  Then we moved a mile or so away where my grandmother did come and live with us because she’d had a stroke — she lived in Devon — and moved to Sherington Road School in Charlton.  From there, I went to Blackheath High School, and from there to Somerville College, Oxford.  It was from there that I got to LEO.
JD	What subjects interested you when you were young?
SW	Mathematics, mathematics, mathematics. That was basically what I did.
JD	Do you know where that came from?
SW	My father was an all-rounder.  He was good at sports, good at languages, and good at maths and sciences as well.  But he actually taught French, mostly French, a bit of German.  My mother was more on the science side, and she taught biology.  She got back into teaching when I started school because she thought I was too young to be full day at school.  And so I only went for the mornings.  And when the education officer came around to find out why I wasn’t at school all day and found out that my mother was a teacher, he decided his efforts were better at getting her back to teaching than me to school.  If he got her into teaching, then I would need to spend all day at school.
SW	So, yes, I’m basically brought up with teachers
JD	When you went to do the maths, what did you think you might do afterwards?
SW	Not teaching.  I decided that I didn’t want to be a teacher.  I thought about accounting, but that meant more exams.  And I thought by the end of my third year, I was going to have had quite enough to do with exams.  And computing was offered.  I found it interesting and went for an interview.
JD	Did the university suggest it?
SW	The companies came around.
SW	I had two interviews.  I had an interview with LEO and an interview with STC.  They both offered me jobs.  LEO offered me £25 more per annum and decided I’ll go with LEO.  So, that was how I got into it.
JD	This would have been in nineteen…?
SW	1961.
JD	So you joined LEO in 1961 as a what?
SW	Well, initially, just as a programmer.  I don’t know how they decided who was going to do what.  It was a week’s programming classes, which included a visit to go and see LEO I at Cadby Hall. Then I did an extra week to learn machine language. (Editor: The usual entry level course was 5 weeks and Peter Byford who was on the same course has kept his notes for the five week course). 
SW	So, obviously, I had been allocated to go that route, but I don’t know how that decision was made.
JD	Had you done the aptitude test?
SW	Yes, that was part of the interview.
SW	Yes, drawing flowcharts and things.
JD	So, whereabouts were you working first?
SW	Hartree House.
JD	In Queensway in West London.
SW	I was living in Holland Park and I could walk to work.
JD	And was there a group intake?
SW	It was…yes, about 10 or so.
JD	So who were you working for?
SW	Adrian Rymell.
SW	And there was Colin Tully and Nigel Dolby and me.  That was it, the four of us on the Master Routine.
JD	But you were working on the Master Routine before the machine, LEO III/1 existed?
SW	We must have been able to test it.  We must have tested it on something.
JD	But you could once the prototype was ready?
JD	Because the first machine didn’t go into Hartree House, did it, until ’62 or ’63? (Editor: LEO III/1 became available to test programmes in May 1961 and was installed in Hartree House in May 1962.  See Caminer et al “The Incredible Story of the World’s first Business Computer”)
SW	Oh, right.
JD	You would have been there right at the beginning ….
SW	Yes.  I certainly was…there was a lot of writing going on.
SW	I just remember lots of paper tape.
JD	The Master Routine was very advanced at its time, wasn’t it?  It was one of the first operating systems I would think.
SW	Yes, I think it was. (Editor: Operating systems were being discussed and designed at that time, for example, MCP Burroughs Master Control Program launched in1961) 
JD	So…gosh, you were….
SW	Pioneering.
JD	What…can you remember any specifics about…which parts of it you found interesting?
SW	Well, I like puzzles.  I like doing crosswords.  I suppose it is that aspect of it.  If there was a problem, solving it.
JD	Yes.  But in the Master Routine itself, any?
SW	No, I can’t remember anything.
JD	So you were there for four years working at Hartree House.
JD	Did you go to the factory?
SW	…to Minerva Road at one stage.  I can’t remember the timing of it. (Editor: Probably before the LEO III was installed in Hartree House).e were back in Hartree House at that time and went to the States. I can’t picture how the team changed over the years.
SW	But it did.  Because in the end, it was me and Graham Pratten and Martin Davidson.
SW	And in between, there was Bob Peele.  He was on it.
JD	So, you were then a very key part of that team.  You then went to RCA in America; for what reason?
SW	They were asking for people who were interested in going and found it a good idea, so I volunteered.
JD	Right.  But the connection with RCA was what? 
SW	I was going across to work on the Spectra.
JD	On the Spectra machines?
SW	Yes, the Spectra machine that was going to be used ….
JD	For System 4? (Editor: English Electric had a long term sharing agreement with RCA,  Indeed the earlier KDP 10 marketed as the English Electric business computer and sold, for example to Schweppes was a rebadged RCA machine)
SW	Yes.
SW	So, we’re getting in on the early days.
JD	That new range that was going to be System 4?
SW	There were 12 of us that went over there.
JD	Right.  Can you remember who they were?
SW	Oh, me, Peter Wallace.
SW	Alan Brown.  Peter Cropper, Hilary Cropper, Martin, Victor Hodge, and the person who was managing us…name just slips.
JD	So, a big group of you went over there to look at…?
SW	We were put into different areas to work with the people there.
SW	I was working on emulation or something else onto the Spectra.
JD	Oh, that’s interesting.  Would that have been emulating existing RCA machines? 
SW	I can’t remember.  
JD	That’s all right.  Where were you based?
SW	Cherry Hill…it’s in New Jersey, but it’s across the river from Philadelphia.
SW	And there was a…quite a big complex there, across the road from a big mall.  The reason there was a big mall was that New Jersey taxes were less than Pennsylvania taxes.  And so people came across from Philadelphia to do their shopping.
JD	So, hard work and a good social life.
SW	We had four flats in the same complex.
SW	Martin went completely independent.  I can’t remember where Victor was.  On some days we used to meet up and do things, but we did things with the Americans as well.  Quite a lot of travelling around, taking advantage of being over there.
JD	It must’ve been quite exciting.
SW	Yes, unlike today, people are popping back and forth all the time.  I went for 18 months and stayed for 18 months.  My parents came over at one stage.  But apart from that, I didn’t speak to them.  I wrote letters.
JD	Were you and Peter together then?
SW	We got together over there.
JD	Did you get married out there?
SW	Yes.
SW	Apart from the complex, there was a hotel across the road and we had the celebration lunch at the hotel.  We actually got married in a judge’s office behind an estate agent in Merchantville.  Sounds very American, Merchantville, doesn’t it?
SW	The room we had the lunch in…it was called the Independence Room, which didn’t seem very appropriate.
JD	And then you came back to working in Hartree House again?
SW	Not really.  We transferred to Kidsgrove.
SW	We were offered the chance to do that.  And having known Graham and Hazel Pratten and other people working at Hartree House who were buying houses and were having this hour commute backwards and forwards.  And I thought, ‘Oh, we don’t want to do that.’  So, we moved to Kidsgrove.
JD	So the group of people that went to RCA, some were from LEO and some were from English Electric in Kidsgrove?
SW	Yes.  Because Peter and Hilary Cropper were from Kidsgrove.
JD	You then came to Kidsgrove to work on System 4 Operating Systems ?
SW	Yes.
JD	Which one did you work on?  Did you work on 5J or Multijob?
SW	I think it would have been Multijob.  But I’m guessing.  
SW	As it turned out, I didn’t actually work very long at Kidsgrove because we came back in ‘66.  And at the beginning of ’68 our son was born.
SW	So, it was about a year.  I don’t really remember accomplishing very much really during that year.
JD	And then you left LEO? 
SW	Well, yes.  But at that time, there were no opportunities to carry on working until Hilary Cropper left.  And she was much more of a managerial and a creative person than me.  She started up the Home Programmers. (Editor: This was a company that Hilary Cropper set up mainly for ex-Kidsgrove ladies who could do programming at home – it was known familiarly in Kidsgrove as “pregnant programmers”. She was head-hunted by Steve Shirley, now Dame Stephanie Shirley, at F International in 1985 and succeeded Steve as chief executive. FI Group was set up by Steve to hire part-time programmers, originally all female, to work from home on as an outsourced programming facility.)  Hilary was inquiring of people who recently left who might be interested in home programming.  They were all, ‘Yes, please,’ and started working at home.
JD	Hilary did end up with a big company, didn’t she? (Editor:  The story of FI Group, including the arrival of Hilary Cropper, later Dame Hilary Cropper, died 2004, is well told in Dame Stephanie Shirley’s book: Shirley, Dame Stephanie; Askwith, Richard (10 June 2014). Let IT Go: The Memoirs of Dame Stephanie Shirley. Andrews UK Limited).

SW	Well, it sort of split up a bit.  It was CPS and then the people who were more directly employed by groups.  
SW	But when we started off … like 10 or 12.  We even had a French magazine come around to interview us.
SW	And they took photographs of us and had us doing things.
JD	So, how long were you working for Hilary at Home?
SW	From 1970 until the end of 1999.
JD	What kind of work were you doing?	
SW	Mostly, it was resolving problems rather than working on something.  But occasionally, I did actually write whole programmes.  That was for 7502 Kidsgrove.  I was going in there fairly frequently and doing testing on the machine.	
JD	So, a lot of the work was for English Electric and then ICL…	
SW	Yes, ICL.	
JD	…as the customer?	
SW	Yes.	
SW	And anywhere that needed programming.  It was mostly resolving problems and writing amendments.	
JD	But when you say anywhere that needed, that was within ICL?	.
SW	Yes, it was mostly. Towards the end  it was at West Gorton.	
JD	Yes, but still ICL?	
SW	Yes.
JD	Was it Operating Systems-type work?
SW	Mostly.  Yes, it was Operating Systems of some kind, yes.
SW	The thing I worked on in 7502 was an improved testing system.  
JD	For testing?  
SW	For the people who test it, doing testing, wanting to change other things on the 7502, so that they could put amendments in easily.
JD	Yes.
SW	But then it was VME eventually.  So, they had VME stuff towards the end, on the communication side.  (Editor:  The ICL mainframe Operating System).
JD	Yes.
SW	And the jobs changed over the years.  Initially, it was big boxes of paper that came from customers with all the information in.  I’ve still got some upstairs.  And then towards the end, we could actually look at it all online, fairly easily online.
JD	Yes.
SW	And we had our sort of e-mail system that somebody set up in West Gorton.…
SW	…which was very convenient with trying to keep up to date.  We actually had common documents in fact that we could update.  But it was still working with people because you were always working with somebody else in an area and spoke on the phone.  I didn’t see them very often, but spoke a lot on the phone.
JD	Did you join the British Computer Society or anything like that?
SW	I did, yes.  I’ve dropped out eventually.
JD	Was that in London or in Kidsgrove?
SW	That was when we were up here. So, it would have been from Kidsgrove, yes.  I don’t know if I got a lot out of it, but I did join.
JD	So, you retired in 1999, 2000.  You clearly keep in touch with some ex-ICL and LEO people?
SW	Yes, once a year, there is a lunch in London organised by Jean Nibbs, the associate for Home Programmers group.
SW	And there’s about 15 people turn up.  I don’t know them all because I didn’t work with them all, but there’s a good turn-out.
JD	Right.  And some of those were ex-LEO?
SW	I don’t think any of them were.  I think it was only me.  
JD	How did you find the LEO way of doing things?  Did that affect the way that you worked and did that affect you later in your career?
SW	I don’t know. That was the only way I knew of working.  So, I don’t know how other people would have done it.
JD	But the disciplined approach of flowcharting and checking stuff and so on…
SW	Oh yes.
JD	…did that continue and did you find that that helped?
SW	Yes, probably.  But that’s the way you approached things.
JD	Did you enjoy the people and the social life with LEO when you were in Hartree House and at the factory?
SW	Yes.  Not so much, I suppose.  When I was down at the factory, Minerva Road, I was still in touch with people I’ve been to college with who were in London.  And so, I was seeing them.  But certainly, yes, to some extent.
JD	That’s interesting.  And that was one thing about LEO.  How did you feel in LEO being a lady?  And did you feel that you were the exception or were there plenty of women there?
SW	There were, but they were the people who were sort of changing our written instructions into paper tape.  (Editor: The Data preparation staff). They were all women.
JD	Were there many other programmers who were?
SW	No.  
JD	So, at the end of your career, what’s your overall feeling about how it all went?
SW	I’m happy with what I did.  I suspect that some people might think I would have been better at trying to progress and become more managerial. But that wasn’t the aspect of the work that I liked.  I actually liked doing the work.  But on the whole, I would say I enjoyed my job.  Not everybody can say that.
JD	This interview with Shiela Wharton has been recorded by the LEO Computer Society, and the society would like to thank her very much for her time and reminiscences.  The interview and transcript form part of an Oral History Project to document the early years of electronic computers in business and other applications, but particularly in business.  Any opinions expressed are those of the interviewee, that is Shiela Wharton, and not of the Society.  The copyright of this interview in recorded form and in transcript remains the properties of LEO Computer Society 2011. 

Provenance :
Recording made by the LEO Computers Society as part of their ongoing oral history project.

Archive References : CMLEO/LCS/AV/WHARTON-20190621 , DCMLEO20230402004

Related Topics:
This exhibit has a reference ID of CH70687. Please quote this reference ID in any communication with the Centre for Computing History.

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