By Richard Sharpe
Few people have heard of Mavis Hinds: she is one of the largely unsung women on whose shoulders much of the IT industry rests. She worked in the Met Office in the early 1950s and, along with her colleague Fred Busby, pioneered the use of computers in numerical weather prediction (NWP). She started using the Leo computer at Lyons. One of their first successful programs took three minutes to load, one minute to run and 90 seconds to print the results. The manual method would take four to five hours. Peter Bird in his seminal history Leo: The first Business Computer describes the Met Office as “a satisfied customer”, who did a lot of work using their programming team. For “programming team” read Hinds and Busby.
Hinds and Busby published nine papers on using computers in NWP up to 1955. During that time they went on to use the Ferranti Mark 1 at Manchester University. In 1959 the Met Office4 installed its first computer, a Ferranti Mercury, which it dubbed Meteor. As the calculations became more complex so more computing power was demanded. The Met Officer bought an English electric KDF9 in 1965. In that year it processed the first operational forecast on the KDF 9 for November 2 to the delight of the invited media. They called the KDF9 Comet. One of the headlines ran: “£500 000 computer speeds up weather forecasting. Comet feeds on isobars”.
Hinds was part of all of these developments. She wrote up her experiences in an article for the Meteorological Magazine published in 1981 – read it here.
I first heard of Hinds when Catherine Ross, archivist to the Met Office in Exeter, was making her contribution to the Archives of IT. Her excellent recounting of the use of IT, both digital and pre-digital, at the Met Office will soon be published. It is the fourth contribution to the Archives form the Met Office. The others come from Charlie Ewen the CIO and Technology Director; Martyn Catlow whose two passions are weather and computing; and Chris Little now in his 50th year of using IT for forecasting.
Somebody has written a Wiki entry for Hinds giving an outline of her life – see here.
Hinds concludes her article in 1981: “Now, in the 1980s, the operation of the much more powerful COSMOS computing facilities 24 hours a day requires first-class organization and the co-operation of hundreds of staff—a very far cry from the single electrical desk-calculator with which it all started in about 1950.” COSMOS was an IBM 370/195 and another IBM 370 front-ending it. Hinds’ article is worth the read.
It included pictures of the computers she mentions including a picture captioned “The console of the Ferranti Mark 1 computer at Manchester”. There is a man and woman in the photo, the woman at the console. The Met Office believes the unnamed woman is Mavis Hinds herself: she is smiling, as she should be given her contribution to UK IT.