Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library


Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

13 October 2015

Ada Lovelace - first in a long line of female programmers

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Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day of celebration of women in science and engineering, named in honour of the remarkable 19th century mathematician Ada Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace

"Ada Lovelace portrait" by Alfred Edward Chalon. Science & Society Picture Library. 

Although born into a privileged family, Lovelace's upbringing was far from conventional. Her mother, the well-educated Anne, encouraged her studies of logic and mathematics, apparently in the hope of countering the influence of her wayward father, the libertine poet Lord Byron. Today Lovelave is best known through her connection with the irascible polymath Charles Babbage, designer of several Victorian era schemes for mechanical calculators and computing machines. In particular, Lovelace is often regarded as the first computer programmer, after developing an algorithm to run on Babbage's Analytical Engine in the 1840s, although as the engine was never built the program went un-run.

A century later, when the new electronic computers came into wide use in the 1950s, women again had an important role in programming. Although it required a considerable grasp of logic and mathematics, programming was initially viewed in a similar way to skilled clerical work or running a desktop calculating machine, and by the standards of the day thought a suitable occupation for women. Moreover, doing skilled technical work did not mean that women programmers were awarded the same status as men doing similar work, as Mary Berners-Lee, a programmer at Ferranti in Manchester during the 1950's recalls:

Mary Lee Berners-Lee discusses equal pay for women programmers

Another problem facing women programmers was the expectation that having children meant leaving the workforce to raise a family, an experience shared by programmer Dame Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley in the early 1960s. Realising that many others were in her situation, Shirley started Freelance Programmers Limited to offer work at home to women programmers who had left their jobs to raise families.  As she recalled in her interview for An Oral History of British Science, adopting the name 'Steve' was just one of the tactics she used to break through the sexist attitudes she encountered to build her new business into a major success:

Dame Stephanie Shirley discusses the creation of 'Freelance Programmers Ltd'


Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley checking the randomness of Premium Bond number 'computer ERNIE at Dollis Hill, 1950s. © Dame Stephanie Shirley

Voices of Science is a growing web resource featuring audio and video extracts from the British Library's oral history of science collections.  The website provides links to full unedited interviews and transcripts available to users worldwide via British Library Sounds

Dr Thomas Lean
An Oral History of British Science

21 September 2015

Happy birthday H. G. Wells

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Born this day in 1866, H. G. Wells was a remarkably prolific writer across a range of formats and genres. His preserved recorded output is somewhat less voluminous, running to something over an hour of BBC broadcast talks, or fragments thereof, but is nonetheless a relatively substantial audio archive for a writer and broadcaster active in the pre-WWII era. 

The BBC first approached Wells in the mid-1920s but it was not until 1929 that he made his broadcast debut, with a speech entitled 'World Peace'.

This talk, which has not survived as an audio recording, was the first of an occasional series of broadcasts that visited and revisited various societal themes, provoking both praise and complaints from the listening audience.

In the extract below, from a 1934 talk in the series Whither Britain?, Wells reveals his pride in his English heritage. 

Listen to the voice of H G Wells

Although the BBC recording from which this excerpt is taken runs for a further seven minutes, it does not contain the full original broadcast. Between 1930 and 1945 the BBC's usual practice was to preserve extracts from selected broadcasts on 78 rpm discs, the standard recording format of the time.

These discs had a running time of approximately three to four minutes per side, and thus determine what survives today: excerpts of programmes that, for the most part, were never archived in their entirety.

The complete text of Wells's Whither Britain? talk was however published in The Listener of 10 January 1934, which, along with the longer recording, may also be consulted at the British Library.

09 September 2015

Listening Project Workshop

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Holly Gilbert writes:

Join us on Monday 12 October at the British Library Conference Centre to reflect on the first three years of the Listening Project: an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC in which people are invited to share an intimate conversation with a close friend or relative.

These one-to-one conversations, modelled on the US StoryCorps project, last up to an hour and take a topic of the speakers' choice, collectively forming a picture of our lives and relationships today. The conversations so far gathered cover a huge range of life experiences told from the perspective of the people who have lived them, from birth to death and everything in between. The collection currently consists of 650 conversations made by contributors from 7 to 101 years old, recorded in all four corners of the UK and includes people who have moved here from across the globe.

The conversations can be listened to in full on the Library's Sounds website while the edited BBC radio programmes are available on the BBC Listening Project website.

The event includes a panel discussion chaired by presenter Fi Glover in which BBC producers reflect on the process of making the recordings and the impact of broadcasting excerpts, Listening Project participants discuss their experience of contributing to the collection and library curators and researchers explore the potential for using the online Listening Project archive for a variety of research purposes as it continues to grow.

The Listening Project booth will be making a stop at the Library especially for the event as part of its nationwide tour.

Listening Project booth

Tickets are free and can be booked via the British Library Box Office.

Workshop Programme

Monday 12 October 2015, British Library Conference Centre

10:30               Arrival: tea & coffee

11:00 – 11:20  Welcome & Introduction

11:20 – 12:45  Using the Listening Project Archive

  • Professor Joanna Bornat (Faculty of Health & Social Care, Open University and an editor of Oral History Journal)
  • Dr Natalie Braber (Department of English, Culture & Media, Nottingham Trent University)
  • Linda Ingham (Visual Artist-Curator, Conversations with my Mother, a book-work installation as part of the Shifting Subjects exhibition)

12:45               Lunch (not provided)

14:00 - 15:00 Creating the Listening Project Archive

  • Panel discussion with BBC Listening Project producers chaired by Fi Glover

15:00 - 15:30   Tea & coffee

15:30 - 16.30   Taking part in the Listening Project

  • Panel discussion with Listening Project participants chaired by Fi Glover

16:30                           Close