A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the world's first office computer Hardcover – Apr 7 2003
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Lyons was a firm one would not have predicted to be in the vanguard of business technology. Its famous stores throughout Britain served tea and cakes. As Ferry says, "A background in catering is not normally seen as an obvious qualification for hi-tech startup companies." But the Lyons shops had a progressive management, interested in contemporary scientific management principles, and took on a Cambridge graduate in mathematics, who realized that the primitive computers being developed in the US could be used for business. Much of the book involves the details of building the computer when computers consisted of a room full of electronic tubes (anachronistically termed "valves" because of the way they could turn off and on a stream of current). There were over 3,000 such valves, and cables all over the room to connect them, and of course, the resultant machine had far less computing power than the chip inside Tickle-Me-Elmo. Eventually, it worked. In 1951, LEO (for Lyons Electronic Office) took responsibility for bakery operations, and eventually took over such jobs as managing the payroll. At the time, there was no comparable machine anywhere in the world, and no commercial market for them.
So in 1954, Lyons the teashops created Leo Computers Ltd. After that, LEO's story becomes a sad one. They did produce machines, and the machines worked. The initial LEO computer did its jobs for fourteen years, before finally being turned off in a little ceremony in 1965. Another installed in 1958 at a steelworks was in continuous use until it was retired in 1971. "I don't suppose we shall ever again keep a computer in service as long as this one," said one manager. Some LEOs worked for the post office, coming out of service only in 1981. The man in charge of them said, "We were very fond of LEOs. They just worked. There was no reason to change them." The post office at one point actually wanted to buy more of them, but Leo Computers could not generate needed capital and had had to merge with other firms. Eventually LEO could not compete with the billions invested by firms like IBM. The American government, too, had backed American computers, while no comparable support came from the British government. Thus LEO is a footnote, not an ancestor, to current business computing, but the men who built it succeeded in a momentous and prescient project. Along the way, Ferry's wonderfully researched and entertaining book is able to summarize a lot of computing history, taking in such subjects as Alan Turing's work at Bletchley Park and John von Neumann's prophetic design of computer architecture. She also tells of the mechanical computers designed by the Victorian visionary Charles Babbage, who felt his inventions were slighted by his own government and admired by the Americans. It was a lesson that had not been learned a century later.
Lyons was a family business founded late in the 19th century. It ran one of the first franchise fast food chains, offering set tea meals served at the customer's table by prim waitresses. Much like McDonald's today, the firm understood that each transaction between Lyons and its customers brought only a few pennies into the family coffers, therefore viability and commercial success depended on efficient operational and clerical administration, particularly for controlling inventory and registering transactions.
In 1923 Lyons hired John Simmons, a Cambridge honours mathematics graduate, as a management trainee. Simmons turned out to be a brilliant manager and sought out every opportunity to rationalize and simplify clerical operations. When computers appeared in the late 1940s and two junior staff proposed using them at Lyons, Simmons enthusiastically agreed they should explore the idea further.
Lyons soon realized that the nature of business differed from that of science. Instead of resolving a few complex problems, business required speedy processing of many simple problems. Available scientific computers weren't adequate, and besides they were expensive and had to be imported form America.
Lyons decided to build its own, and LEO was born. Because it was designed specifically to meet business needs and because the project was led by Lyons's avant-garde Systems division, LEO proved a greater success than anyone had dared hope and the division was spun off as a separate company.
Sadly the venture never took off. Building a LEO was a huge project. They were built to order, took years to deliver, and needed Lyons's own specialists to program and maintain them. When LEO sold a machine, it would lose one of its best people to the customer. The Lyons board had enthusiastically supported developing LEO as an internal project but they lacked the vision to pursue the burgeoning business computing market. In the end, the market was taken over by competitors though not before Lyons got the British Post Office to sign what was then one of the largest contracts in computing.
Vincent Poirier, Tokyo
Georgina Ferry's `A Computer called Leo' is an interesting and informative account of this extraordinary venture, one surely unprecedented in the entire history of IT. However, by often failing to fully clarify the distinction between not only hardware and software on the one hand, but also between internal system software and application software on the other, she unintentionally overstates the overall significance of this achievement. Whereas internal system software is an integral, permanent and indispensable feature of the hardware environment, application software is externally developed and therefore incidental, disposable and throwaway - like clothing on the human body. As a virtual clone of EDSAC, the LEO 1 was not innovative or revolutionary from a hardware and internal system software perspective. Rather, its uniqueness lay in a) its in-house development by a purely commercial organization (i.e. J. Lyons) with no prior computer expertise and b) its speedy adaptation (again in-house by Lyons) to run a range of completely novel application software (likewise developed in-house by Lyons) to replace some of the most typical and fundamental, hitherto purely clerical, internal business operations. Instead of being the `world's first office computer' as Ms. Ferry's narrative appears to suggest, the LEO 1 is better viewed as the world's first computer to run the first office application software of this particular type. For it was the UNIVAC 1, designed from the very outset for the commercial market by Americans J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly (whose brainchild office computing was), which truly qualifies as the world's first business computer. Fully operational by March 1951 - several months before the LEO 1 - and equipped with the very first examples of office application software to perform sorting and collating procedures, the UNIVAC 1 entered service with the US Census Bureau later that year, at almost exactly the same time as Lyons got to run its first job - Bakery Valuations - on the LEO 1. To her credit, Ms. Ferry provides a fairly detailed account of the UNIVAC 1's development but fails to properly acknowledge its trail-blazing role and significance.
A few more points. Ms. Ferry inexplicably commends famous mathematician John von Neumann for his authorship and circulation in 1945 of the `First Draft of the Report on the EDVAC', a shockingly thoughtless act which not only failed to acknowledge the primary responsibility of Eckert and Mauchly (his closest colleagues on the EDVAC project) for much of the material content of the document but was done without their prior knowledge or participation. Equally irrationally, she dismisses as `much ink and hot air' any objections to them being denied credit for this content. On the subject of flow-charting, she records the Lyons team as being the first to pioneer this design technique and states that it is still widely in use today, or at least when the book was published, i.e. in 2003. Yet flow-charting almost certainly originated in the mid-1940s work of von Neumann and his younger colleague, Herman Goldstine, and became largely discontinued as a popular system design tool by the early 1980s in the wake of third generation computer languages and newly introduced methodologies like advanced data flow diagramming, UML, entity process modelling and other CASE-based tools.
Ms. Ferry ends by speculating on the reasons for the repeated failure in Britain, especially at the governmental level, of very large, expensive computer projects and vacuously concludes this is primarily down to the failure of modern system designers - in contrast to the record of the Lyons pioneers - to remember `what the computer was for' and to make sure `it worked for business'. Let me just say this. Think user indiscipline - too many competing stakeholders, chaotic project management, little or no attempt at phased, modular approaches to implementation and, above all, uncontrolled specification creep. Case closed, end of story.