Suffrage Science – decoding the brooch

October 16, 2018 - Geekiness / Women in Computing

A week ago I went to London to borrow a piece of scientific jewelery for a couple of years. It’s a delightful, rather bonkers scheme by the MRC called Suffrage Science, whereby they chose 6 women computer scientists to receive a brooch 2 years ago, and last week they handed the brooch onto the next woman. In just under two years time I get to hand it on to the next person, and that way it passes from scientist to scientist. I was given the brooch by the excellent Professor Carron Shankland from the University of Stirling.

The event was good fun – here’s me having received the award, and having had some nice free wine…

and here’s the group picture of all the donators and the recipients – they did Mathematics and Computer Science in the same event so there were about 12 of us being passed jewelery by another 12. Carron’s the one hiding in the back with the yellow top.

Enough about the socialising though. What about the brooch?

It was designed by Veronika Fabian who was at the time a student at Central St Martin’s – she won a competition with the design. And it’s lovely.

It’s a model of a piece of curled punched tape, with a 5 bit encoding. Each row of holes or spaces (two positions for data, one smaller hole, then three positions of data) encodes a binary pattern, which represents either a letter, a number, or a control sequence. These were used in early telecoms and computing to transfer and store information. Three of the holes contain small jewels in the Suffragette colours – purple for loyalty, white for purity and green for hope. It turns out that if you put a piece of paper behind the holes, you can just about make out the pattern. So I spent a little time this afternoon doing just that.

With the pattern transcribed to a piece of paper, I made a guess at the character encoding (I went for ITA2 as it seems the most common and was in widespread use in early computing). ITA2 uses short codes to represent common letters and the more complex four dot codes to represent rarer letters. I started by filling in all the E characters (dot in position 1, all others empty, so 10000) and spaces (dot in position 3 – 00100). I thought this looked a bit odd as there weren’t many Es in the message, but it turns out it was right. When I filled in more letters it became clear that certain suffragette statements started emerging. The complete message is “DEEDS NOT WORDS COURAGE CONSTANCY SUCCESS THROUGH THICK : THIN WE N’ER GIVE IN SUFFRAGE SCIENCE AWARD 2016 DEEDS NOT WORDS COURAGE CONSTANCY S”. To get numbers and punctuation, there’s a shift signal – 11011 and there’s a shift signal 11111 to go back from numbers to letters.

A picture of my decoding is below – click for a larger version. There’s one character missing and it’s in a tricky part of the brooch to see, so I think the error is probably mine not the designer’s. The missing character should be 11111 after 2016 to go back to letters for the final “DEEDS NOT WORDS”.

The image below shows the relationship of the words to the brooch. When you’re wearing it the things that can be seen are “DEEDS NOT WORDS” on the upper, small loop, and across the back of the brooch in the uncurled part you can see most of “THROUGH THICK AND THIN WE N’ER GIVE IN”. On the outside of the lower, larger loop there’s “SUFFRAGE SCIENCE AWARD”.


  1. nic herriot says:

    this is a lovely article…. not that i understand the decoding bits, and i love the diagram showing where the words are placed.

  2. Carron Shankland says:

    Fabulous work Hannah. And a really beautiful, clear article.

  3. Edel says:

    Nice one Hannah, but less of the ‘_early_ telecoms and computing’ if you please! I’m not that ancient yet!

  4. Julie McCann says:

    Ha! Brilliant Hanna, I can point people who want to know more about it to your page.

  5. Fiona Corke says:

    Thanks Hannah for this story, time well spent decoding this special brooch!

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