Lionising Leo

User-Driven Innovation
November 22, 1996

Britain features highly in the early development of computers and computing. World-renowned pioneers such as Charles Babbage, Alan Turing and Maurice Wilkes all made significant contributions to the field. Centres of excellence like Cambridge, Manchester and the National Physical Laboratory produced early examples of computers. Inevitably commercial interests eventually took notice.

J. Lyons and Co, a successful catering company, had the foresight in the late 1940s to realise that great savings could be made in terms of manpower and time if some of their more mundane procedures could be automated. One of the most significant was payroll.

The company was the first in the world to computerise its commercial operations. It had to start essentially from scratch, first hiring an electronic engineer, John Pinkerton, to design and build the computer, and then training well-selected recruits to program Leo, the Lyons Electronic office, as the computer came to be called. Leo was based on the EDSAC computer developed by Maurice Wilkes and others at Cambridge. Initial approval for the development of Leo was given even before EDSAC was finished, and the final go-ahead was sanctioned almost immediately after the first successful EDSAC test run.

This book presents a firsthand account of the development and programming of Leo. It is largely nontechnical, mainly presenting the managerial and social aspects, which is unusual compared with many historical accounts of computing innovations. Since there are so many contributors (13 in all), the resulting view is inevitably eclectic but fascinating.

The reader is taken on a historical journey through the background of the Lyons company, the first office computer job undertaken in 1951, through Leo I, II and III, to the eventual wind-down in the late 1960s. Then come more individual views by various pioneers and innovators, and the use of Leo abroad in South Africa and behind the Iron Curtain. The pervasive impression from the book is that of a band of exceptional, dedicated and hard-working professionals performing pioneering work almost without realising it at the time. The members of the Leo team were obviously well-chosen high-calibre people who willingly worked long hours. Without their dedication and rapidly developed expertise, the entire project could easily have failed. The amount of investment available was relatively small, but it was used wisely. However, the catering background of Lyons probably closed a number of doors to commercial expansion. For example, in the United States during the 1950s, 60 per cent of IBM's research and development budget came from US government contracts, with $400 million coming from the US armed forces. Against such huge investments, Leo stood little long-term chance of survival and was swallowed up by English Electric in 1963, and later ICT which became ICL, with disastrous consequences for the Leo team.

Many of the difficulties of introducing computerisation encountered with Leo are similar to those faced today, except now the problem would be termed business process re-engineering.

The unique Leo approach was to use consultants rather than salesmen to do much of the liaising with customers to determine what was really required, rather than letting customers guess what they might need and discover their mistakes later. This could be an expensive process, and such altruism is not widespread today.

One omission is that there is no contribution from John Pinkerton without whose technical expertise the project could not have proceeded. There are also no photographs; a selection of the personalities involved and the working environment could have been a worthwhile addition.

Leo, the first truly commercial computer in the world, is now sufficiently old to be evaluated in a detached historical perspective, but recent enough for most of the participants still to be available to tell their tale, making this an extremely timely book.

Jonathan Bowen is lecturer in computer science, University of Reading.

User-Driven Innovation: The World's First Business Computer

Author - David Caminer, John Aris, Peter Hermon and Frank Land
ISBN - 0 07 709236 8
Publisher - McGraw-Hill
Price - £35.00
Pages - 416

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