Today, anyone who uses Google to hunt for information on the World Wide Web is making use of fundamental research conducted by Karen Sprck Jones which began in the 1950s and is now woven into the fabric of computing. She worked in machine translation and information retrieval, which for some years were poorly supported by the funding agencies, until the arrival of the Internet and massive improvements in computer capabilities propelled them to the centre of today's networked world.
She was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire in 1935, the daughter of Owen Jones, a technical-college lecturer in chemistry, and Ida Sprck, a Norwegian who worked for the government-in-exile during the Second World War. Karen Sprck Jones was educated at a local grammar school and in 1953 went up to Girton College, Cambridge to read History. She graduated in 1956 and, lacking other opportunities, became a school teacher, which she did not enjoy.
In 1956 she was introduced to the Cambridge Language Research Unit by Roger Needham, whom she had known as an undergraduate and who was then studying for a PhD on the automatic classification of information in the Mathematical Laboratory (later Computer Laboratory). Machine translation was then emerging as a potentially important use of computers, and Sprck Jones was offered a position as a research worker and the opportunity to study for a PhD under the unit's founder, the formidable Margaret Masterman. Sprck Jones's research topic involved the automatic building of a thesaurus.
In 1958 she and Needham were married and set about building a house - working on site in the mornings, at their dissertations in the afternoons and evenings, and sleeping in a caravan in the garden. In 1961 they bought their first primitive boat; later they acquired an Itchen Ferry Cutter (built in 1872) which for many years they sailed on the east coast.
Sprck Jones was awarded her PhD in 1964. By this time, Needham had become a mainstream computer scientist and had secured a position in the Cambridge University Computer Laboratory. Sprck Jones took up a three-year research fellowship at Newnham College, working on information retrieval. This was the first of several untenured research fellowships she obtained over the next 30 years, as she and Needham sought to follow independent careers at Cambridge University. In 1968 she gained a prestigious five-year Scientific Information Retrieval Fellowship funded by the Royal Society. In 1977 she became a Senior Research Associate in the laboratory, undertaking further information retrieval research funded by the British Library. …