The First Woman Commercial Applications Computer Programmer

Mary (Blood) Coombs was born in London to a family who believed in women’s educational careers. At the time of her birth (1929), women were not thought to have a career. Mary’s degrees were in French and History. When she graduated, she taught English in Switzerland for a year.

Returning to England, Mary became a temporary clerical worker at J. Lyons and Co. where her father was medical director. Bored in her job, Mary applied to take a computer appreciation course. Lyons was hoping to automate its business operations. There were 10 applicants for the course with Mary being the only woman. Mary was one of two people selected.

Computing at that time was very different from today. What Mary learned to do was manipulate the very structure of the computer for it to perform what was required. The computer took up an entire room and had limited capacity.

The first program that Mary worked on was to calculate the cost of ingredients in the bread and cakes that Lyons sold in their tea rooms. This was the first use of computers for an office application.

While the programming of computers is vastly different today from what it was when Mary was working, the planning process for programming hasn’t changed that much. Flow charts developed in Mary’s time are still used today.

With the knowledge gained on Lyons’ internal applications, Mary and the others developed applications for other organizations looking to automate their processes. In effect, this became the forerunner of the information technology consulting industry.

Mary was wed to another programmer and had a child who died at the age of six due to a disability. Mary and her husband adopted three other children. Mary gave up her career in computers and returned to teaching in order to have more time with her children.

Like many hidden heroes, Mary’s career took her in a very different direction than her education might have indicated. What hidden heroes possess is a way of thinking. How one thinks is often more important than specific knowledge. The test that Mary took to launch her career was one that assessed her thought process rather than any specific knowledge. New ideas often come from people who have the ability to think about issues in a way that makes them special.

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            “You were born with the greatest weapon in all of nature – the rational, conscious mind.” – Robert Greene (Author)

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