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.
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.