Former mayor receives award for “tremendous contribution” to university

Date: Saturday 7th October 2006

KESWICK councillor Elizabeth Barraclough has been awarded an honorary fellowship from Newcastle University, where she first began work almost 50 years ago.

The 73-year-old, who has lived in Keswick since 1993, but was a frequent visitor to the town for 20 years before that, was given the accolade in recognition of her position at the forefront of the birth of electronic computers in Britain.

Miss Barraclough, who is a Liberal Democrat county, town and district councillor, first worked with computers in 1955, when she was just 22 years old.

Graduating from Manchester with a degree in maths and physics, she had the job title computer operator before most people even knew computers existed and she sent her first e-mail in 1969!

Miss Barraclough said: “The first computer I ever used was an Edsac 2, which was built in Cambridge and carried out arithmetic and logical operations. It was a huge machine compared to today’s computers.

“I remember that it was so unreliable that you didn’t dare walk into the room where it was stored in case you disturbed something so it was covered in dust and cobwebs.”

In 1957, Miss Barraclough began work as a computer operator at Newcastle University, then King’s College. She retired from work there as director of the computing service in 1993. During her 36 years at Newcastle, she saw computers grow from a niche area only used by academics into the modern-day backbone of the developed world.

When she first started her job at Newcastle, she worked on one of the first commercial computers in the country, the Ferranti Pegasus. This computer, which was used as a research tool for scientists at the university, predated the use of transistors or modern integrated circuits and used paper tape instructions written in machine code.

“We were level-pegging with the US at that stage in terms of computer development,” Miss Barraclough said.

In 1963, she spent three months in the USA implementing a medical information system which is now considered to be one of the world’s first electronic databases. She was awarded a masters degree in computing in 1964 for work on school timetables.

Her first e-mail in 1969 was sent via the ARPA network, which was used by a close circle of academics in North America and Europe.

“I remember one chap I used to work with did his courting by e-mail. It’s common practice now, but was very novel back in the 1970s,” said Miss Barraclough.

She also saw the phenomena of the personal computer grow in the late 1970s.


“When PCs first came out, they were so unreliable that we produced a publication every year for 13 years advising people what they should buy and what was likely to go wrong,” she recalled.

Now, more than 50 years after she first started working with computers, she is being recognised for her pivotal role. Newcastle University only started awarding honorary fellowships last year, and Miss Barraclough is one of only three people to be given the honour this year by the university chancellor Lord Patten.

Newcastle University registrar Dr. John Hogan said: “Collectively, these three individuals have made a tremendous contribution to shaping today’s university, through their personal endeavour, expertise and genuine support and enthusiasm for the development of the institution. It is fitting that their contribution is being recognised by the award of an honorary fellowship.”

Miss Barraclough has previously been mayor of Keswick and has pushed for greater co-operation between the town and county councils. She has also been heavily involved in the Keswick in Bloom scheme, the Keswick Area Partnership, aimed at improving the economy of the town, and has also been involved in plans for Keswick Museum and Art Gallery.

INSET: Miss Barraclough when she was working at King’s College, Newcastle, now the University of Newcastle.