Stories : Anne Jones

I met with Anne Jones - a legendary member of the ACMS.

Anne grew up in country Adelaide. In 1955 at the age of 16, she graduated from High School as dux of her form. Having completed the Leaving Certificate in what was then known as Year 11, one of her teachers noticed her exceptional mathematics ability and asked her to do a special maths exam. By passing this, it allowed her to study mathematics in university. She also won a university scholarship.

As it was in the time, her parents had only considered the expense of sending her brother to University for a tertiary education. Although he had decided to not proceed to uni, to follow in her father’s footsteps as a Postmaster, and with no other siblings, her parents would not cover the cost of board for Anne to be able to live and attend University in Adelaide.

She had to forego her scholarship simply because she was a girl. She never quite comprehended why her parents did not assist her when her elder brother was given opportunities, and with him not taking them, they were not made available to her. A sign of the times.

She took up a job with the CSIRO Mass Stats division until mid-1959.

They were using a Powers-Samas punch card computer in her later years, to get the cards in order. Previously, they had only tabulation machines to rely upon.

Ann studied a science degree in pure and applied maths, but didn’t complete it. She had met her husband, 3 years her senior, who had completed a Masters degree, and he wanted to go to England to work. Anne stated she would join him if he found a job. He did, in Manchester for a large electrical engineering firm called “Ferranti Limited” and so they went. She was married in 1959 at just 20.

Ferranti strangely was doing contract work for The Australian Government for weapons research in South Australia, and that’s where he was originally interviewed and identified to be sent for work in the UK after a 6 month stint in the local SA base.

Anne decided to get a job of her own. She looked and found a job at another electrical engineering firm, Metropolitan Vickers, which was later taken over. The job was not particularly about maths, but she just wanted a job so took it.

An older lady at her new role saw her resume and identified she was very good at maths.

She asked her to take a job in their research section and become a computer programmer.

This was 1959.

In England, life was different. Everyone in the research department in relation to computer programming was female. As we spoke, she exclaimed - “And they were married!”.

They wanted to utilise computers to aid them with their engineering designs and make them more easily.

She would sit in meetings as the only female, with up to 10 male employees. She in her dress, this Australian girl. The men would try and chat her up persistently. She spoke of travels with male colleagues within England where they would try and hit on her on the trains. Often 20 or 30 years her senior. They never forced themselves upon her, but they often had a go.

The computer they had was built by the engineers and was slow. They had to program in binary.

They would go to Manchester University to run their programs whilst they waited for their own “proper” computer which was bigger than her current residence (a three bedroom house).

The machine was a Ferranti Mercury - built by the organisation where her husband worked.

She went back to Manchester University to study Numerical Analysis. When she was dealing with the engineers internally, they would explain what they wanted her to do, but she would have to analyse the data and write equations for the computer. She would punch them onto paper tape. The computer only handled mathematics.

The punch tape outputted after calculation would be fed into the dye cutting machines to produce turbine blades for Nuclear Power stations. At the time she didn’t realise how extraordinary the work she was doing was. It was “just her job”. It was 1961. She was 22.

Having learned piano, and trained in classical signing, she programmed the “hooter” on the large Ferranti computer to play music. The hooter was designed to initially warn programmers of issues in routines in their programs, to play a tone to allow them to calculate where the issue was. She had a moment where she thought, I could write music on that!

So just before Christmas 1961, she wrote a number of programs to play Christmas carols to play back on the machine along with the Song of Australia and Waltzing Mathilda. Only her colleagues in the research section ever knew or heard this. They were lucky - her department had their own computer, in their charge. It was not being time shared to others in the company or external parties.

Anne assumed that later after she left the computer was expanded beyond her department of 6, as at the time it was only for them to prove the concept.

They ended up staying 3 years in the UK after originally only planning to stay 2. In hindsight Anne wishes they had stayed.

When they returned to Australia, Anne could not get a job. She was a married woman.

At the time in Australia, the public service would not allow women to continue to work once they were married. If she had stayed in Australia after she married, she wouldn’t have been able to continue her job at the CSIRO. She would have been sacked or otherwise retired.

Her husband returned to work for Ferranti at Weapons Research in SA. They did work at Woomera. The government overseers in the organisations knew they needed someone like Anne in their employ and gave him a form for her, but it was denied on the basis she was married.

Anne thought to herself. Well what then now? So she thought - I’ll have children. She always wanted children, but her decision was expedited 4 or 5 years because she couldn’t get a job.

She had two children, and took up singing again in operas and musicals, choirs etc.

In 1969, the family moved to Canberra - the kids 3 and 5. This was on the back of the contract to Ferranti expiring in South Australia, and her husband finding a new job in Canberra as the Scientific Advisor to the Military Board.

Anne contemplated become a teacher as her kids got older, as the school hours and holidays would work with her family life.

Then as the children got older, she decided to sit the Public Service exam. The exam was done in sections. Once you completed one section, you would have to wait for them to give another. You could not spend more or less time on any. This was after a 24 year work hiatus taking care of the family. Her children were grown and going to Uni. Jeanette, her daughter decided then to go part time and got a job at the ABS. It was 1986.

She received a letter from the government stating she had passed the exam and that they would be sending her a letter of offer soon. Anne took this with a grain of salt after her daughter Jeanette had waited a year for an offer along with her friends.

Anne was offered a job within a month as a high performer on her exam.

She had specified she would like to work with computers and stats and was offered a job at the ABS as a programming assistant.

She couldn’t be a programmer as she didn’t have a degree in programming, and everything had changed significantly in the landscape over the 24 years.

Her boss at the ABS advised she wouldn’t get anywhere without a degree. She said right! Where should I go? He said, there was more practical at University of Canberra. She was 47.

She started in the second semester 1986. She did a double major in Computing and a minor in Statistics. She gained high distinctions in all her statistics subjects and a high distinction in discreet mathematics. Even at a time when she hadn’t worked for 24 years, or study for near 30. It is likely that her retention came from both being a capable individual but also having learned these subjects at a very young age. Anne was driven. When she and her classmates didn’t understand, she would go home and attempt to work out the parts she didn’t comprehend. At one time she recalls being able to find a problem with a solution in the back of her book. After not being able to work out the correct answer, she reverse engineered the answer to learn and understand the methodology behind it. Many people at uni, both young and old wanted to work with Anne because they could see her aptitude. Many wanted to be in her work groups.

She recalled one of her colleagues from the ABS stats who was also attending university, that she would give him a lift. He wasn’t particularly bright and always wanted to be in her study groups. Anne didn’t want him in her group knowing he wouldn’t pull his weight.

One time they ended up in a group together and he was meant to deliver her his part for her to tabulate into their assignment, and he didn’t complete it.

Anne went to Uni that Sunday, and she redid all of his work and put the entire assignment together and dropped it off very early, because it was meant to be in on the Friday,

She rang her colleague and asked where the work was. And that she had completed the assignment and handed it in. He assumed she had removed his name from the assignment - she hadn’t. He then assumed she would stop giving him a lift to uni, but she didn’t. She simply said, she didn’t want to work with him again.

Anne’s mantra was that if she chooses to do something, she was going to do it right. She always went the extra step to ensure she fully understood her work, even when this was frustrating to her colleagues in the workplace.

Anne completed her tertiary education in late 1993. She had worked all the way during this time at the ABS, and later having moved to the Tax Office in late 1992. She had gained many promotions during her years, even as early as a year into her time at the ABS becoming a programmer.

At the ABS, Anne was programming the “Balance of Payments” working out the statistics on the balance of the imports and exports data.

She worked on programs around the Y2K bug, and worked on many programs and databases on imports and exports data.

She also worked on the first Telestats - the Telestats program was the first program where they sent out data on Telecom (Telstra) boxes via a dial in service where people could access the data prior to it being published in paper form. You had to apply and pay to be able to access this data.

Anne’s team had to work and manipulate data, big data, including menially running data provided to them through confidentiality programs that would strip identifying data from the datasets to ensure that certain groups or organisations couldn’t be targeted if they were determined to be the only ones importing certain items.

To be continued.


An excellent story! An exceptional person.

Thanks @EdS
Also a thank you to @JoRoWeb for editing and fixing up some errors in the document which I have now republished above.