Remembering my old teacher on Ada Lovelace Day

This blog post has been written to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, “an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology”. You can find more blog posts at the Ada Lovelace Day Collection.

Martin Belam has a much more thorough and better-written explanation of why Karen was important on his blog.

Karen Spärck Jones

The Diploma in Computer Science, originally the Diploma in Numerical Analysis and Automatic Computing, was the world’s first full-year taught qualification in the newly emerging discipline of computing when the Cambridge University’s Mathematical Laboratory, home of the EDSAC stored program digital computer, introduced it in 1953.

At the time EDSAC was being used by mathematicians, engineers and even biochemists to carry out ground-breaking work that required more computational power than even a legion of dedicated graduate students could provide, and it was felt appropriate to offer formal training in the principles of programming as well as the specifics of writing code for the valve-based monster that occupied most of a large room in the centre of Cambridge.

The Diploma is no more, having fallen victim to the reshaping of post-graduate qualifications that has taken place over the last few years, and was conferred for the last time in 2008, but when I arrived to begin the course in the autumn of 1983 it was thriving, a space in which those in possession of maths ‘A’ level (or equivalent) and a first degree could be inducted into the arcana of the computing world.

We covered databases with Ken Moody, graphics with Neil Wiseman, programming languages with Martin Richards, artificial intelligence with Bill Clocksin, operating systems with Roger Needham – and information science and natural language processing with Karen Spärck Jones who is the woman in technology I’d like to draw to your attention on Ada Lovelace Day.

My first degree was in philosophy and psychology, so I had a natural affinity with the material she covered, and I was impressed from the very start by her ability to convey these complex topics to a disparate bunch of beginners drawn from many disciplines.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Karen and Roger Needham were married, two lives dedicated to the academic discipline of computer science and to pushing forward the capabilities of digital technologies. Her work on information retrieval underpins modern search engines, while the field of natural language processing owes much to her research in the area.

I also didn’t know that she too had read philosophy at Cambridge before moving into computing, or that she had worked at the Cambridge Language Research Unit with Margaret Masterman, a student of Wittgenstein’s, but these shared intellectual roots may explain something of her importance to me as a teacher in that formative year.

I completed the Diploma and went to work for a small software house in Cambridge, writing as a freelance for various publications. Eventually I was writing for The Guardian and working for PIPEX, one of the UK’s first ISPs, and in the mid ‘90s the two tracks came together when I set up The Guardian’s New Media Lab, making use of my computing skills and my journalistic background as managing editor, chief programmer and systems administrator for the first Guardian website.  She continued her academic work, and was eventually given a personal chair as Professor of Computers and Information.

Our paths crossed from time to time over the years, including the occasions when I was working in the library at the Computer Lab and at the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of EDSAC which she organised in 1999, and we would say hello but I was not in her circle of friends. She was sometimes around when I visited Wolfson College, where she was a Fellow, to hang out with my fellow hack John Naughton, so we’d share a few words. I saw Roger more often in my capacity as a journalist and friend of the labs – you never get Cambridge’s claws out entirely.

Karen died of cancer two years ago, and I was privileged to be asked to write her obituary for The Times. I had written Roger’s in 2003, so it seemed fitting.  Writing the obituary of someone who has inspired you is hard, because there’s always the danger that your sentiment will lead you to overstate the significance of their achievement.  With Karen Spärck Jones there was no danger of that.

In 2007 she was the first woman to be awarded the Lovelace Medal by the British Computer Society, so it seems appropriate that I should write about her on Ada Lovelace Day.

Karen Spärck Jones, computer scientist, was born on August 26, 1935. She died of cancer on April 4, 2007, aged 71. You can read her obituary in The Times, and if you find yourself at Wolfson College, Cambridge, you can browse through her personal library on the shelves in the Karen Spärck Jones room, just beside the porter’s lodge.

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