When I was at the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge for the first time back in December 2017 I noticed a small exhibition about the LEO, the first business computer built in the early 1950s by the Lyons tea company. By a tea company!?
Yes, by a tea company! But how could that be, I wondered at the time!? I also noticed that a number of books were written on this, the latest one back in the early 2004 by Georgina Ferry. After reading the book and having gone back to the museum to take another look at the LEO exhibition, things became a lot clearer but I’m still very much astounded.
In summary, the Lyons tea company was a pretty big company by the standards of the 1940s and 50s with thousands of employees and, as is still the case now, little profit is made in the catering business on a per piece basis. So every fraction of a penny that can be saved per cookie counts, if you will. That was hard to do at the time because there were no computers yet to track expenses, cost of production, cost of distribution and sales, payroll, etc. etc. All was done manually by ‘human computers’. And boring work it must have been. A few people at Lyons, however, could imagine the benefits electronic ‘computing’ of such tasks could bring to Lyons so they set out to find out more about the state of the art. Eventually, after a trip to the US, they found the team working on a scientific computer at the University of Cambridge in the late 1940s. When they realized that their design could be extended to also fit commercial applications, Lyons sponsored the development and then built their own LEO, the Lyons Electronic Office, based on the design. This was followed by the LEO II and LEO III, which were developed in a, by then, separate company and also sold to other companies with commercial rather than scientific problems. An incredible story that developed far away from the US, where the government poured billions of dollars into electronics and computer development for military and government after the second world war.
I fully recommend this book to anyone interested in computing history as it tells a great story about an episode in computing history that, while almost forgotten these days, nevertheless played a vital role in the history of commercial computing.