Review of:

 

Georgina Ferry. A Computer Called Leo: Lyon's Teashops and the World's First Office Computer.
London: Fourth Estate. 2003. xi+221 pp. ISBN: 1-84115-185-8

 

By Christopher D. Green

York University

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

christo@yorku.ca

 

To be published in Journal of the
History of the Behavioral Sciences

2003, Wiley Publishing

 

This book violates the almost all the sensibilities of the modern historian. It focuses squarely on an intrepid band of "great men." It is unabashedly Whiggish and intensely nationalistic. It deals only peripherally with the social and political factors that informed the events it describes. For all that, it is a delightful read nonetheless.

 

It tells the story of how England's largest string of teashops, Lyons, came to see earlier than anyone else how a computer could effectively replace their labor-intensive accounting department. And then, there being no appropriate computer on the market, how they set out first to build one to suit their needs, and later to build more for other companies, becoming the first business computer manufacturer in England, and perhaps in the world.

 

Lyons began as a cigar manufacturing business opened by a Prussian Jewish immigrant to London, Samuel Gluckstein, in the 1870s. The Glucksteins and their partners soon expanded into other ventures, launching a catering business in the 1880s and a string of teashops in the 1890s. By 1925 there were some 200 Lyons teashops, as well as higher-end restaurants and hotels. The company was becoming one of the largest employers in England. Effectively managing this sprawling business empire required more technical expertise than the family had, so they hired one John Simmons, a Cambridge "wrangler" in mathematics with an interest in "scientific" management. The problem facing Simmons was to control the income and expenditures of a company that had 30,000 employees and did hundreds of thousands of small transactions daily. Under conditions like this, any price that was out by even a couple of pennies could rapidly cost the company thousands of pounds. At the time, Lyons use hundreds of clerks to enter by hand the receipts collected each day by the company's waitresses, but as early as the 1930s, Simmons wondered if it were somehow possible to automate this work, making it quicker, more accurate, and cost less to execute. World War II intervened, blocking any movement on the idea for nearly a decade, but in 1947 Simmons dispatched two younger disciples to investigate the new computing machines that were being developed in the U.S. The most important things they learned were (1) that no one was working on business applications, and (2) that a computer was then being built close to home at Cambridge.

 

Lyons immediately struck a deal to support the Cambridge team's work, contingent on their also building a machine to suit Lyons' needs. The Cambridge computer was running by May 1949, and Lyons' computer, LEO (short for "Lyons Electronic Office"), stated doing regular work for the company in November 1951 -- the first working business computer in the world. Other companies soon started soliciting Lyons to do handle their computing needs too. It gradually became apparent that there was a market for the LEO itself, if it were commercially available. Thus, in 1954, Leo Computers was launched to manufacture and sell machines to other businesses. Leo may have been first off the mark, but its competitive advantage was not to last. In 1955, IBM announced its first business computers. Than, a combination of British government policies and commercial realities rapidly led to Leo's demise.

 

Lyons' venture into the computer industry was brief, but it was much more serious and sophisticated than is revealed in most histories of the computer. This books tells this interesting story well.

 

Reviewed by Christopher D. Green, Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M3J 1P3