Courtesy Bob Stevenson

LEO Computers (link to o/s site)

.....LEO Computers.....

Lyons built and operated the world's first business computer which they called LEO (Lyons Electronic Office). This came into use months before any American computer. Initially intended for in-house use only, the machine caused such a stir that a company was started to build the machines for other UK organisations. Computers were exported to Australia, South Africa and Czechoslovakia when this was still behind the 'Iron Curtain'.

The LEO Computer

Among all the technological achievements developed by J. Lyons Co. in their quest for efficiency, the development of their LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) computer in the early 1950s must rank as one of the most innovative. Single-handedly, and with advice given by Cambridge University, J. Lyons & Co. embarked upon one of the most ambitious DIY projects of the century; the building of an electronic, stored program computer designed specifically to undertake any clerical task. The upward trend in office costs following the end of the Second World War made Lyons realise that some form of automation was essential if these costs were to be brought under control. For many years their office procedures had been honed and adapted and many novel ideas had been introduced (micro film for example). In the pre-war years Lyons had developed an enviable reputation not only factory efficiency, but also for office procedures and job classification. Since it had been the policy for Lyons to control their own service departments (legal, transport, laundries, box making, central buying, works department, architects, food laboratory, tea estates, wine cellars, etc.) it was not such a big deal for them to embark on the building of an electronic computer, even though they had no history of electronics or electro-mechanical engineering. There was nothing available to them at this time which met their needs and so with their usual self-assurance they set about designing and building one themselves.

The catalyst came in 1947, following a trip to America by Thomas Thompson and Oliver Standingford, two managers with wide experience of clerical procedures. On their return they produced a report for the Lyons board which basically said that electronic computers hold the key to office efficiency and for £100,000 Lyons could build one themselves which would show a saving in office expenditure of £50,000 per year. At this time Cambridge University were involved in their own computer project, EDSAC. This was designed for academic calculations and quite inappropriate for office work but Lyons did see the potential in the new technology. However, they did not want to play a passive role merely keeping in touch and in due course acquiring machines as they came available from manufacturers. In this way they could not influence machine design and this they felt was essential if the problem of commercial clerical automation was to be sold successfully.

Instead Lyons donated £3,000 to Cambridge, to help in their EDSAC project, on the understanding that Cambridge would give them advice when needed. Maurice Wilkes, who headed the Cambridge team, thought Lyons had taken leave of their senses but was happy to go along with the idea. Lyons seconded a man to the Cambridge team for a year during which time he learned a great deal about electronics. Meanwhile Lyons advertised for an electronic engineer in the scientific journal Nature and it was answered by John Pinkerton. He had recently obtain his Phd at Cambridge and through Wilkes, had learned of this extraordinary project which Lyons had planned. The interview was a formality and Pinkerton started work on 17 January 1949. Several other team members were recruited for both hardware and software design although this terminology was not yet in use.

During the next three years this inexperienced team, designed and built a working model which was dubbed LEO. A large area at head office was vacated and the computer gradually assembled piece by piece until the whole came together as a working machine three years later. During the process carpenters, plumbers, sheet metal and engineers staff toiled on the huge assembly of valves, switches, wires, ducting, resistors and power supplies in a well organised undertaking. Many, many difficulties had to be overcome. This had never been done before and so there was no experience to draw on; the operating system even had to be designed and written. Magnetic tape was introduced and discarded because it was not reliable. It was later introduced again. Engineers worked in close co-operation with the software team to design 'actions' relevant to the work which was to be performed. Every failure was logged and recorded to provide an audit trail. Application design was fully flow-charted and bench tested long before it even got to a computer program. In those days machine time was far more expensive that programmers time. Mercury delay lines were used for storage, 64 tubes in total, with a limited capacity of 2,048 orders or short numbers. The complete machine used over 5,000 thermionic valves.

The first operational run of the computer took place on 5 September 1951 when an application known as Bakeries Valuations was performed. It was nursed through a pretty unreliable machine but from then on it was run each week as improvements were made. It was a resounding success. However, payroll automation had been one of the main objectives of John Simmons, the Lyons Controller who was responsible for the whole LEO project. Between 1951 and 1953 the project team began to overcome many of the machine's unreliable quirks so that by December 1953 it was felt reliable enough to undertake payroll, a task which had to be performed to time because staff had to be paid and in those days this meant weekly pay. This milestone came on 24 December 1953. The results were astounding. The task of calculating a employees pay, until now, took an experienced clerk 8 minutes. LEO had done the job in 1.5 seconds. It was a watershed, a quiet revolution.

News of this fantastic 'electronic brain' circulated through industry and many famous companies commissioned Lyons to undertake a range of tasks on their computer; tasks which had been almost impossible to conduct previously because of the complex calculations needed. Hence a bureau service started which continued for many years. Lyons also set up a manufacturing facility to build computers for other companies. Until the American computers began to have an impact on the UK the LEO computers sold moderately well and the models were improved on LEO II and LEO III. Lyons also built mark-reading machines to improve data input and dispensed with punch card and paper tape. Complimenting these devices was a fast output printer using optical and computer generated images which were projected on to a light sensitive selenium drum. A large laser printer. They were incredibly expensive and could only be justified in businesses with large printed output such as insurance companies and government departments.

By the 1960s the Americans had captured much of the UK computer market. Their machines were better engineered, more reliable and above all less expensive. With other British computer manufacturers suffering from the same American onslaught the British government supported the merger of British interests to counteract the imports. LEO merged with English-Electric and they in turn merged with other famous companies such as Marconi. In time British computer manufacture faded away.

This remarkable story is told in, LEO - The First Business Computer. ISBN 0-9521651-0-4

Hasler Publishing, 4 Luckley Wood, Wokingham, Berkshire. RG41 2EW. Email: [email protected]

Hardback 270 pages, 83 illustrations, biographies, 14 appendices. Price £18.95 plus postage overseas.

© Peter Bird 2002


Courtesy Tony Cutting

Facing camera (4th from left) Reg Cutting, J.Lyons & Co