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LEO: the first business computer
Bird P., Hasler Publishing Ltd., Workingham, UK, 1994. Type: Book (9780952165101)
Date Reviewed: Feb 1 1996

Most surveys of the history of computing mark the beginning of the commercial computer age with the delivery of the first UNIVAC in 1951. The better ones note the first delivery of a UNIVAC to a commercial, not government, customer (General Electric) in 1954. Only the best histories mention LEO, a computer built by the British catering company J. Lyons & Co. and first operational in September 1951, as the real beginning of commercial application of the stored-program computer. Bird, a long-time employee of Lyons, tells the story of this and many other firsts for the LEO, the remarkable computer that Lyons built along the lines of the Cambridge EDSAC.

Good history is more than just asserting the claims of the first invention. Bird commendably goes into far more depth, giving the reader an intimate look at the catering business, its needs for timely and accurate information, and how the LEO computer was designed and programmed to meet those needs. Although I had known of the LEO and had even read something of its accomplishments, I was amazed at Bird’s descriptions of how sophisticated the Lyons computer systems were, and even more at the way the LEO was integrated into day-to-day operations at Lyons--foreshadowing the management information systems and other buzzwords of following decades. Little of this story has ever been told, and it is both exciting and humbling to read how far ahead of its time Lyons was in the 1950s.

Much of the reason for the historians’ slight is due to Lyons’s main business, that of supplying tea and pastries to shops mainly in England. Lyons never established a presence in the US. The shops served coffee, but such is the cultural gulf between the US and UK that few Americans take seriously an establishment that placed greater emphasis on tea. Still, the book reveals how, before the Second World War, Lyons was in the forefront of advanced management practices, allowing the company to operate profitably at razor-thin margins. Seen in this light, it was not at all surprising that Lyons would be among the first to adopt electronic computing. Also worth noting is the author’s emphasis on how Lyons carefully analyzed and structured its operations to dovetail with the new technology--a lesson that had to be painfully relearned in the following decade, as firm after firm dropped an expensive computer into its operations and then wondered why profits did not automatically follow.

This book makes clear that the preparation and service of perishable food are just as complex and information-intensive as tallying the census or planning military operations. In one telling anecdote, the author describes a visit by Lyons personnel to the US Pentagon, where they noticed an awful lot of officers involved with the Pentagon’s new UNIVAC but not doing a good job of it; this was in contrast to the small, underfunded, but much more competent situation at Lyons.

Whatever the advantages of small and lean operations were, the small scale of Lyons’s computer business was also the ultimate cause of its demise. Despite its head start and the experience gained in how to computerize a firm, Lyons remained basically a catering, not a computer, company. It had a respectable number of outside sales, but not enough to build a critical mass to support research and development, so necessary in this field. Lyons spun off a separate company, LEO Computers, Ltd., but in 1963 it merged with English Electric, and a few years after that it was swallowed up in the consolidation of nearly all British computer firms into International Computers, Ltd. Lyons turned to IBM for its own computer needs.

General Electric failed in the computer business because it did not wholly commit itself to computing; for Lyons, that was even more a factor. What was worse, even if it had wanted to commit more resources to research and development, Lyons could never have raised the funds to put it on a level with other English companies like Ferranti, not to mention IBM. Near the final days of LEO, Bird describes how a fire in the computer room caused smoke damage to the LEO installation, requiring a heroic day-and-night operation to get it running again. Lyons decided against publicizing the gallant way it responded to the crisis, since that would only have raised a comparison with IBM installations, where a new system probably would have been wheeled into the room within 24 hours.

This book is full of technical details of both the computer systems and the catering business. But it is also a story about the people who made this remarkable story happen. It is well told, fascinating, and highly recommended.

Reviewer:  P. E. Ceruzzi Review #: CR119311 (9602-0108)
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