Ada Lovelace Day: Delia Derbyshire

As part of Ada Lovelace Day organised by the wonderful Suw Charman-Anderson, Finding Ada has asked bloggers to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.

It’s obvious to me who to celebrate – Delia Derbyshire, mathematician, musician, sound artist, and early audio engineer/technologist.

Born in Coventry in 1937 she grew up during the Blitz and graduated in a degree in mathematics and music at Girton College, Cambridge. She tried to apply to Decca in 1959 and was told “the company did not employ women in their recording studios” – the first of many prejudices she faced, but it didn’t let it stop her.

Eventually she was working at the BBC at the Radiophonic Workshop in the early 60’s, creating musical compositions on the sly as they weren’t officially ‘musicians’ for political and union/legal reasons…the Workshop was mostly working with tape and musique concrete techniques, for which her mathematics training came in useful (apparently she went and corrected their textbook on tape lengths and pitches because it was wrong!) with some very rudimentary electronics.

Here she created the famous Doctor Who theme tune with composer Ron Grainer, still a landmark in electronic music – and legendarily Ron asked her ‘Did I create that?’ to which Delia replied ‘Most of it’ – in fact Ron asked for her to get a credit because he realised how much she had added to his original composition, but the BBC wouldn’t allow it.

Delia worked on many projects, from doorbells to dreams to daleks, creating incredibly influential proto-ambient works and innovating music techniques using the most rudimentary technology that everyone thinks is electronically based, but the Radiophonic Workshop didn’t have synthesisers til the late 60’s/early 70’s.

Take this tune created with the sound of a reverberating lampshade:

Eventually she and others started creating music outside of the BBC, in studios they setup on their own using the newer synthesiser technologies and away from the BBC’s restriction…also library music was a lucrative business, and many people heard Delia’s work on adverts unknowingly as ‘Li De la Russe’ and other pseudonyms. She worked with colleague Brian Hodgson and EMS founder Peter Zinovieff with Unit Delta Plus that performed at the infamous ‘Carnival of Light’ in London, and also with Brian again and David Vorhaus with the influential late 60’s psych favourite White Noise and their first LP, ‘An Electric Storm’ for which she worked on 3 tracks and setup the Kaleidophon Studio with them:

In 1973 she left the BBC and retired from music apart from occasional projects like The Legend of Hell House soundtrack and working with Sonic Boom aka Pete Kember just before she died in 2001 of renal failure following reovering from breast cancer.

She faced a lot of prejudice in a then male dominated world of engineers, technicians, mathematicians and musicians, and bitchy BBC queens who didn’t like a strong-minded perfectionist woman who refused to stay in her place (although she rebuffed suggestions of being a feminist icon, saying she was just doing her work and what she needed to do).

She’s a role model for me because she created her own path, struggled, and suceeded, and is now a cult-hero for several generations of musicians. I doubt the likes of Little Boots would get acceptance as musicians and sound creators if it wasn’t for the likes of Delia. Just a shame there wasn’t as much support or acceptance, especially in the early 70’s where she felt ostracised from the BBC and society – because I think we lost many years of great music from one of the best modern composers and sound artists we ever had.

And with the discovery of her tapes which are being rescued and analysed I hope more Delia releases will come out, revamping and keeping her memory alive…compared to her contemporaries she is pretty badly served for record releases, I think. The likes of Trunk Records are trying to rectify this – but shame on BBC for leaving her and her contemporaries to gather dust.

Further information

This video is interesting as it highlights not only one of Delia’s best tunes (done for Electrosonic in 1972 on the sly as De La Russe I think) but also the slideshow of women in electronic music. Certainly in this field there are many women who get sidelined unlike their male contemporaries – Delia is just the top of a large stack for me:

(+1 on the Pauline Oliveros, Eizabeth Parker, Bebe Barron, Daphne Oram – many of these were Radiophonic Workshop interestingly)

Finding Ada has an unconference event tonight in London, not sure I can make it, but Suw and Maggie Philbin (that’s a name from my youth religiously watching Tomorrow’s World :-D) and potluck and networking…sounds good 😀

And another way of supporting Ada Lovelace Day is go read Sydney Padua’s great 2D Goggles – the Ada Lovelace / Charles Babbage crime-fighting steampunk comic! It’s my wallpaper atm, I love it.

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Tim B Written by:


  1. March 29

    This clip of “computer generated music” is not exactly related but seems similar in spirit — a Radiohead song played by old computer parts. Skip the first minute of a high-pitched loading sound or something, but after that it’s worth it.

  2. December 16

    […] Ada Lovelace Day: Delia Derbyshire – Radio Clash Music Podcast & Blog […]

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