A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the world’s first office computer

A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the world's first office computer
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. 2003, 221ppWhether you like a good story, social history, computers, or are just nostalgic about Joe Lyons’ “caffs”, A Computer Called LEO is an appealing tale, illustrated with black and white photos, about the advent of the first computer.

Georgina Ferry conjures up the image of some 300 female accounts clerks, clacking away continuously on their Burroughs mechanical calculators checking bills against takings for the 250 or so J Lyons & Co high street teashops in the 1930s. The manager of the accounting operation in pre-war times was a bright young man called John Simmons. According to Ferry, as Simmons surveyed the room “all he saw was a waste of human intelligence” and he began to dream of the day when machines would be invented capable of doing all this work automatically. Within 10 years he made the first stage in that dream a reality by persuading the board of Lyons that their company must become the first in the world to build its own electronic digital computer. A Computer Called LEO is the wonderful story of this one remarkable man’s ambition and success in achieving it.

Ferry interweaves LEO’s story with the history of computing. British mathematicians have played an integral role in this development ever since the days of Charles Babbage (1792-1871). Like Simmons, Babbage had been interested in improved factory management. The ultimately tragic figure of Alan Turing and the wartime development of computers at Bletchley Park also figure in the lead up to LEO.

Development was delayed by World War II and Ferry expertly goes on to tell how, on November 29, 1951, LEO took over Bakery Valuations and became the first computer in the world to run a routine office job. But it wasn’t until 1954 that LEO was judged reliable enough to finally take over from the clerks. By the following year, John Simmons had fulfilled his dream and was able to declare that “LEO leaves clerks free to use their brains to their own greater benefit and the service of the community”. One needs to add that to Lyons & Co’s great credit this was achieved without any compulsory redundancies; indeed employment increased. Britain led the world in computer development at the time and there was considerable potential for the turning of a cottage industry in to an international money-maker, but that required considerable investment.

The end of Ferry’s story of LEO tells of how Britain let an advantage slip from their grasp as US money, muscle, management and determination took over and IBM went on to win the day. —Douglas Palmer.

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