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In Memoriam: Mary Coombs, 1929-2022

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Computer programming pioneer Mary Coombs, 1929-2022

"If I hadn't enjoyed myself so much...I would have balked at the relatively low pay, you know. It was really great fun." - Mary Coombs


British programmer Mary Coombs, the first woman to program a computer for commercial use, died on February 28, 2022, at the age of 93.

Despite not having studied math or science in school, her abilities led her to a job running a calculating machine at Lyons' Statistical Office. Coombs excelled in Lyons' computer appreciation course—she was the only woman to take it—and earned a job offer in the company's nascent computer division. There she worked with Frank Land on the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) computer, the world's first computer designed solely for commercial use, from 1952 onwards.

The LEO was built to automate back-office tasks for Lyons' national chain of 250 teashops and the sales of tea, cakes, and ice cream. Its first job was to calculate the costs of the weekly bakery delivery run, which accounts clerks previously did manually. Within two years, the machine was being used for the more sensitive task of payroll calculation. Coombs wrote test programs for the LEO computer during her first months in Lyons' computer division. She worked on the LEO I, II, and III and as a result of her expertise, she was given the task of rewriting the programs from the LEO II for use on the LEO III.

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