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A Computer Called LEO 103

Posted by timothy
from the one-lump-or-two dept.
frisket writes "The history of computing is full of unsung heroes and heroines, their battles against disbelief, and the machines they created. This is one of those fascinating stories: the first real office computer, designed for business rather than science or research, and built from scratch by the British company of Lyons in 1949-51 -- whose primary business was their huge chain of tea-shops." Read on for more of frisket's account of A Computer Called LEO, which sounds not only like a good story, but also like a bit of comeuppance for tea drinkers in the coffee-obsessed tech world.
A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the World's First Office Computer
author Georgina Ferry
pages 221
publisher Fourth Estate, London
rating 9
reviewer Peter Flynn
ISBN 1841151858
summary A fascinating tale of the development of the world's first real business computer from the 1940s to the 1980s

In the early mists of computing -- pre-WWII, during, and immediately afterwards -- only a few scientists were really aware of what a computer was or could be, and no-one considered a computer to be anything other than a scientific or military tool. Except one man, John Simmons, a progressive and enthusiastic manager for the Lyons tea-shop empire in Britain, who also happened to be a brilliant mathematician and zealous proponent of the principles of scientific management.

Georgina Ferry tells the full story of how the young Simmons saw the need for automation as early as the 1930s. The monstrous task of accountants' clerks adding up copies of all the waitresses' bills for 250 tea-shops was done with mechanical calculators, and his dream was of removing this drudgery by automation.

He had seen the future of mechanical automation on a trip to the USA in the 20s, but it wasn't until after WWII that he was able to send two trusted lieutenants on an electronic fact-finding mission which included meeting Herman Goldstine, godfather of ENIAC, at Princeton. The resulting enthusiastic report, and a visit to Douglas Hartree at Cambridge, England, enabled Simmons to persuade the Board of Lyons to let him build a computer from scratch.

Post-war Britain had no dollars to buy American computers, but more tellingly, computers were viewed in the US and England by their scientific and mathematical fathers as tools of science. Simmons saw them as tools of business, and astonished them all by building one to do business processing.

The Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) was started in 1949 and entered service in 1951 with punched tape, mercury delay lines, and a program to analyze costs in the Bakery of the tea-shop business. It thus became the first purpose-designed business computer, years ahead of the first US business system (GE's 1954 UNIVAC).

It was so successful that Lyons set up a subsidiary to make and sell them to British industry. LEO spawned LEO II and eventually LEO III, which offered true multiprocessing. Sadly, British industry was slow to grasp the opportunity. Leo Computers had some notable and significant sales through the 50s and into the 60s, including winning the biggest commercial data-processing contract in Europe at the time (to the UK Post Office in 1964), but the Lyons Board eventually sold off their subsidiary, and it passed through mergers and acquisitions into ICL and oblivion, but that big PO contract was so successful that the Post Office persuaded ICL in 1969 to make five last LEO 326s which continued in service until 1981!

Ferry has managed to condense a 30-year technological saga into a thoroughly readable and hugely entertaining book without neglecting the underlying causes of Simmons' original quest to improve business efficiency. Her descriptions of the contributory threads of UK and US computer development are succinct and accurate, and they balance her careful explanations of the hugely complex world of running a large catering business manually, the complex interplay of family-business relationships, and the differences between UK and US commercial ethos in the post-war period.

At this distance in time, Ferry has been fortunate to have been able to include material verbatim from many of the people directly involved, so there is an air of immediacy which you don't get in books on earlier science. There's a full list of sources and a detailed index, and numerous photographs taken at the time. This all makes the book valuable on several levels, and it would make a great gift to anyone in business as well as computing.


Georgina Ferry is a science journalist and author, and has written accounts of scientific achievements in several fields. Recent contributions include a Life of the only woman Nobel laureate, and co-authorship of a book on the social and political aspects of work on the Genome. The BBC has a bio here. A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the World's First Office Computer is available from Amazon UK. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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A Computer Called LEO

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  • Colossus (Score:5, Interesting)

    by whoever57 (658626) on Friday May 02, 2003 @12:52PM (#5862944) Journal
    It was a huge failing of the British govenrment to keep secret the existence of what was possibly the world's first computer.

    See http://www.picotech.com/applications/colossus.html for details of what British engineers achieved before ENIAC existed.

    • I've always wondered why there is not more mention of Colossus. Before the Enigma machine was found on the sub, they had just about cracked it with that huge computer.
    • Define "computer" (Score:3, Interesting)

      by tuffy (10202)
      If you mean "electric computer", the Colossus is certainly one of the first, though I recall experiments in electrostatic computers that predate it (the names of which escape me). But, of course, the works of Babbage in non-electric computers predate the Colossus. And works in mechanical computing predate Babbage going all the way back to the abacus.

      The Colossus was an important achievement. But, like many inventions, it was not without predecessors in some form or another.

      • Colossus was a scary computer.

        "Obey me and live, or disobey and die"

        I know this will get modded offtopic so I was going to AC post it, but /. seems to have turned AC off for logged in people. Hmm.

        graspee

        • Colossus was a scary computer.

          Good thing we have Victor Newman [imdb.com] to save us from the terror of Colossus :)

          (I noticed the lack of AC posting too. Fortunately, mods usually ignore offtopic stuff posted at 1).

      • You're right, a lot depends on how you define "computer". The early to mid 1940s saw several electromechanical and electronic digital computing machines in the U.S., Britain, and Germany: the Atanasoff-Berry computer, the Harvard Mark I, the ENIAC, the Colossus, and Konrad Zuse's Z3 and Z4.

        I'm going to propose something a bit heretical. When I consider what "computer" means to us now, I think these early machines might be better called "proto-computers". The word "computer" makes me think of a fully el

    • Re:Colossus (Score:3, Interesting)

      by u38cg (607297)
      There were very few people who knew about it with any real understanding.

      As far as those in authority were concerned "the boffins did it". As far as they were concerned, there was no interest in examining what they had done and deciding if it should be released. Bear in mind also the Cold War was opening up; many at that time thought there would be a shooting war within a decade, and opening military at that time was a non-starter.

      In short, you can't really blame them. It would be fifty years before

      • What I think is interesting, is how the war pushed several areas of technology -- there were great advancements, yet, clearly the idea that technology's advance could be so rapid had not entered the conciousness.

        The idea that Colossus would be irrelevent because of further strides in computing very quickly did not enter into the minds of the civil servants who kept it secret. The idea that there was commercial advantage to be gained from it also did not enter into their minds.

        And amazingly, that it too

    • To me, it was quite reasonable for the British government to keep Colossus a secret, and it didn't cost Britain much.

      Remember, Colossus was developed as a code-breaking enterprise, not as a computing project. British ability to read German codes was very important in winning the war. Afterward, Britain faced the threat of Stalin's Soviet Union, and the Soviets did a great deal of spying. So at the time it must have seemed quite prudent to prevent the Soviets from learning about Britain's code-breaking

      • it must have seemed quite prudent to prevent the Soviets from learning about Britain's code-breaking experience and expertise

        A good hypothesis, but one that assumes that Colossus continued to be important to the British intelligence services. However, at the end of World War Two, Colossus was simply scrapped and its creators moved to unrelated projects. So Britain did pay a price as the valuable experience gathered during the Colossus project was wasted - its creators banned from furthering their acheive

  • IBM vs Lyons (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tomgarcher (604260) on Friday May 02, 2003 @12:53PM (#5862947)
    Lyons being a food company apparently had many bad run ins with the UK government over rationing in WWII. This meant that hardly any computers were bought by the UK govt (apart from those purchased by the post office). By contrast IBM had a great relationship with the US govt before it got into digital/electronic computing (i.e back in the days of mechnical computing) and this fed through into a lot of demand for IBMs electronic computing offerings. Sad to say, another example of the UK govt managing to kill innovation stone dead and sabotage the economy. Willing to bet the dumb civil servant even managed a knighthood for his efforts.
  • by mcmonkey (96054) on Friday May 02, 2003 @12:59PM (#5862996) Homepage
    The relationship of advanced calculating machines and tea was documented by this guy [douglasadams.com].
  • ...and look up the definition for 'comeuppance'.
  • Too soon (Score:4, Funny)

    by grub (11606) <slashdot@grub.net> on Friday May 02, 2003 @01:01PM (#5863019) Homepage Journal

    LEO would have been a great success had John Carmack been around to write Quake for it. Of course the cost of the paper spewing out of the machine would have been prohibitive.
  • by joeszilagyi (635484) on Friday May 02, 2003 @01:03PM (#5863030)
    ...drink their tea straight. More of a caffeine hit, and it tastes better than coffee. And, you don't get that nasty twitch that Red Bull gives you.
  • Its always nice to understand where things came from. I mean my dad says, "I remember the days when we use to use paper tapes". To my kids I will say, "I remember using floppies". Wonder what my kids will say

    Rus


    • I remember when we used to have to type at a keyboard and read words on a screen. Hold on a second, my direct cranial connection is loose.

    • "I remember the days when you had to use your muscles and eyes to interact with computers."
    • by Andy_R (114137)
      My father (who was a LEO programmer in the 60s) told me of the 'drum drive', precursor of the disk drive. The principle was the same, but the 'platter' was a cylinder, which had the benefit of constant track length, but the drawback of being similar in form factor, noise level and maufacturing tolerances to a washing machine.

      If I recall correctly, they managed to cram ana amazing 50k of data onto a drum.
      • IIRC, those were modeled after early phonographs and/or music boxes.
      • Yes, magnetic drums were a very common storage device until disks took over in the 1960s and 1970s. By the way, drums generally had a line of fixed heads all the way along the drum, so there was no need to move the heads and thus no seek latency, only rotational latency. And while drums were as big and noisy as washing machines, so were the disks of that era.

        Magnetic drums weren't used for quite the same purposes as disks, though. Disks were for file storage, but drums were more often used as a low spe

  • Did it run Linux of BSD?

  • When I first saw the headline I was hoping that if the computer's last name was Laporte it would be cut in half with a sawzall. Sorry for the inside joke ;-)

    Morgon Webb, will you marry me?
  • Leo Computer Society (Score:5, Informative)

    by alext (29323) on Friday May 02, 2003 @01:24PM (#5863225)
    The LEO veterans have a web site with some interesting pics here [leo-computers.org.uk].

    Y'know, that Leo 1 desk looks awfully like the computer that terrorized Emma Peel [dissolute.com.au] in The House that Jack Built [theavengers.tv]. Spooky!
  • There are always 2 sides to technology - coming up with the idea for the machine itself, and coming up with a use for such a machine. I think it's a doubly amazing achievement that this machine had a specific purpose, and was not just a general computOr (back in those days, "computer" had an "O" in it). My dad did some work with the ENIAC, and from his descriptions, it was essentially to replace a room full of people using adding machines, and that's about it.
  • GE Univac? (Score:5, Informative)

    by tinrobot (314936) on Friday May 02, 2003 @01:33PM (#5863306)
    "It thus became the first purpose-designed business computer, years ahead of the first US business system (GE's 1954 UNIVAC)."

    General Electric did not create the Univac, it was Mauchley and Eckert for Remington Rand.

    BTW - My dad used to work for GE computers. I had a Multics terminal in my house as a kid. Learned how program that way.

    Dang, I'm old...
    • Not quite right. A snippet from: [about.com]
      In 1950, Eckert and Mauchly were bailed out of financial trouble by Remington Rand Inc. (manufacturers of electric razors), and the "Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation" became the "Univac Division of Remington Rand." Remington Rand's lawyers unsuccessfully tried to re-negotiate the government contract for additional money. Under threat of legal action, however, Remington Rand had no choice but to complete the UNIVAC at the original price.

      BTW - My first computer-rel
    • The phrase in parentheses was meant to refer to GE's *purchase* of a UNIVAC in 1954.
  • by JaredOfEuropa (526365) on Friday May 02, 2003 @01:36PM (#5863347) Journal
    Such stories are always a good read, and put things into perspective nicely. Here are a bunch of guys doing payroll on a machine that probably has less computing power than the battery in my laptop!

    And here I sit, watching the secretary on her 2,4GHz P4... playing freakin' freecell.
  • It's somehow gratifying to read about how the product I'm using (my computer) and the product I'm drinking (an indian black tea) are connected in history in a way which neither coffee nor red bull can compare.

    To set the record straight for those who call tea girly, no product which for its aquisition entailed the conquest and enslavement of an entire (sub)continent can be called girly... Even if I drink it out of cute little porcelain cups with my cute teapot. It's still manly. Arrrrghhh (manly grunt)
  • LEO. . . (Score:4, Funny)

    by AlaskanUnderachiever (561294) on Friday May 02, 2003 @01:56PM (#5863537) Homepage
    So. . does it say bad things about me that the second I see "LEO" I think. . .

    Law Enforcement Officer?
  • by Animats (122034) on Friday May 02, 2003 @02:01PM (#5863583) Homepage
    There were several other machines in that series, the most famous being the English Electric Leo-Marconi KDF9, circa 1960. The KDF9 was a true stack machine, like a Java VM. Way ahead of its time.

    The Burroughs 5500 was a very similar stack machine from the late 1950s, but was more successful commercially. It was produced in quantity, had a good OS (the Master Control Program), and did the back-office work of many banks for a decade. It was even a shared-memory multiprocessor.

  • George, too (Score:4, Interesting)

    by OldCrasher (254629) on Friday May 02, 2003 @02:09PM (#5863642) Homepage
    Somewhere in all the mess that surrounds LEO is George. George I, II & III. I think (usual provisos about senility apply), George I was the OS on later LEO's. ICL ploughed on with this OS for years. In 1981 I was coding Cobol at ICL on a rare 2966, on VME-B, being hosted on George III - a feat common on IBM machines but less so on ICL.

    George-III had some multi-user features, but mostly they used it just for multi-processing.

    VME-K and VME-B which were meant to be new OS's inherited quite a bit of George and were still in use till at least the late-80's on 2900 and 3900 series ICL kit.

    Imagine MS-DOS at 40 years old? Eyyyyhhhh!

    • OldCrasher seez ...

      Imagine MS-DOS at 40 years old? Eyyyyhhhh!

      Funny you should put it that way, the original DOS for the IBM 360 (maybe even worse than MS-DOS IMHO) is almost 40 years old now. And its successor DOS/VSE is still in use.

    • I think the ICL 1900 series were less related to Leo and more to Atlas. I used George 3 a few times, and it could handle multiple interactive users.

      Slowly.

      Still it had rather less memory than my mobile phone.

      However it had quite a nice file system which featured an automatic archiver (filesweeper) that ensured that anything you wanted was sitting on tape and a day's restore away! Still it came with ISAM by default, and had some useful features. Command processing was also a lot easier than with IBM.

  • This was once discussed [slashdot.org] at /. in a facinating archived article at the Economist entitled, "Electronic Abacus [economist.com]."
  • Does anyone know if/when this will be available in the U.S.?

    This doesn't appear be available online from usual [amazon.com] suspects [bn.com]. It can be ordered from the UK version of Amazon, but who _really_ wants to pay shipping on that?
    • The shipping's only £4.94 (about $7.92 at the moment). If Amazon in the US has import CDs or books, it's actually often cheaper to order them from Amazon.co.uk and have them shipped.
  • by Simon Brooke (45012) * <stillyet@googlemail.com> on Friday May 02, 2003 @03:06PM (#5864110) Homepage Journal
    I have a mercury delay line transmitter and receiver (but not the mercory-filled tube which used to fit between them) from a LEO mark 2, although I don't know which machine they came out of. I have a power supply unit (one of many in the original machine) from The Corby Steelworks LEO Mark III machine.
  • If they'd built two, they would of course had to connect them with a T1.

    [ducks]
  • I haven't read the reviewed book. I have however read this book [amazon.com], and it was incredibly good - one of those "couldn't put it down" moments. I would recommend it to all wishing to learn about this historic machine.
  • Good luck to Georgina Ferry with her book.

    If you want to read more about LEO 1, here's a paper [nickpelling.com] I wrote last year discussing the business case for it.

    OK, it was for Uni, but what the hey - Walter Skok gave it 80%, so at least one nerd out there likes it. :-9 [*]

    Cheers, .....Nick Pelling.....

    [*] *sigh* Walter, I guess I owe you a drink for that... :-)

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