Members of the LEO Computer Society tell Martin Cooper MBCS RITTech about their memories of a computer, created by a catering company, that revolutionised business computing.

A swiss roll is a sponge cake filled with whipped cream and jam and, as its name suggests, it’s rolled up before the whole creation is optionally dusted with icing sugar. Despite its name, the cylindrical confection most likely has its origins in Austria.

For our purposes, it’s not so much the cake and its beginnings that are fascinating though. Rather, this is a story of how a very British love affair with tea and indulgent cakes gave birth to the first business computer and, it could be argued, to the revolutionary notion that business itself could be computerised.

The story begins in 1884 with the foundation of a company providing catering for large scale events called J. Lyons and Co. and culminates in 1951, when Lyons Electronic Office I - LEO for short - ran its first program. Our story is also about the LEO Computers Society: a group of enthusiasts dedicated to preserving and sharing the memory of a machine that really did change the world.

From cakes to computers

‘It was the world’s first business computer and, it was a catering company that produced it,’ says Neville Lyons, a member of the Lyons family and the LEO Computers Society. ‘And you have to remember, America, at that stage, was saying “we only want to use computers for academic and scientific reasons.”’

‘LEO was critically important because it opened the door to so many big companies in the 1950s,’ states Peter Byford, Chair of the LEO Computers Society. ‘They realised they could improve their business by using computers. Companies like Ford who had two LEO IIs, one for their parts division and one at Dagenham for their main business. The Post Office stuck with us. They were even acquiring more LEO IIIs in the 1980s.’

Scientifically managed growth

As the 1900s dawned, Lyons expanded rapidly and moved from providing event catering to opening its first tea shops. By the 1920s, the firm was making and selling 36 miles of Swiss Roll every week; by the 1930s, Lyons ran over 250 teashops across London and the rest of the country. The firm’s success saw it branch-out into food manufacturing and hotels.

Lyons’ success came at a price though. As its fortunes grew with a gathered pace, so its operational overheads began to spiral. At the peak of its powers, Lyons’ Cadby Hall HQ occupied a 13-acre site in Kensington. There, it made, baked and distributed its many popular products to all its tea shops and many other retail outlets across the country.

‘By 1939 Lyons employed around 30,000 staff across the country,’ explains Byford. ‘1,500 were involved in accountancy and other, statistical work.’

Lyons’ management wasn’t, however, cowed by the increasing complexity of the business. Rather, it had begun preparing for it decades before. ‘Accounting and office efficiency had been a concern of management from the outset,’ Lyons explains. ‘As early as 1910, the company was using calculating machines to assess, from waitresses’ bills, the average morning and afternoon spend by customers at each of its teashops.’

Continuing, he explains: ‘With the great expansion of the business in the 1920s and, always ahead of their time, they realised the need for a scientific approach to the business procedures.’

And, with that, Lyons started recruiting some of the best brains in the country: many of them young university graduates, whose job was to focus on creative work-study and early examples of management science or ‘organisations methods’.

Men of science and of action

One such man-of-action was John Richardson Mainwaring Simmons. Simmons had received a first-class degree in maths from Cambridge and had a zest for organisation and planning.

‘Simmons was a believer in scientific management,’ explains Frank Land OBE, a systems analyst, who worked on LEO’s design of business systems. ‘By the 1940s, Lyons was very efficient… They developed ways of recording information and photographing it, for example. They had the idea that we must avoid, at all cost, copying data by transcribing it. One piece of data has to be there for everybody. So, the order form became the invoice and the invoice became the receipt. They had a very smart system and they wanted it to be smarter.’

Coming to America

In order to become even smarter, in 1947, at Simmons’ behest, the Lyons board agreed to launch a fact-finding mission to America. The firm sent two high-grade mathematicians - TR Thompson and Oliver Standingford - to the States and instructed them to research how the Americas were using electronic computers.

Thompson and Standingford’s mission wasn’t easy. ‘During their stay in the USA, they were put in touch with just about everyone who was doing serious work on electronic computing, but they found that this concentrated almost exclusively on the technical side, including military applications such as ballistic calculations,’ Lyons explains.

A visit to Princeton University and meeting with Professor Goldstine did eventually provide the two men with an answer. Goldstine told them about a project at Cambridge University’s mathematics laboratory. His advice was simple: go home and head to Cambridge.

An answer closer to home

In Cambridge, the two Lyons men met with Douglas Hartree and Professor Maurice Wilkes  (Wilkes who later found BCS). Hartree and Wilkes were working on a project called EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator). Like the machines in America, it was designed primarily for technical academic calculations and not suitable for business applications.

‘Lyons appreciated the potential of the new technology,’ Byford says. ‘They recommended what could have seemed an outlandish proposal: that the Lyons company could design and develop a computer based on work by Cambridge.’

The Lyons board donated £3,000 to the EDSAC project and, in return, received guidance about how it could build its computer. The catering firm was, however, cautious and adopted a wait-and-see approach.

On 6 May 1949, the Lyons Board received notices that EDSAC had completed its first live job. Byford says: ‘Simmons passed a note to the Lyons board who happened to be in session at the time. Ten minutes later, he got their signal to start work!’

Birth of a giant and a revolution

By 1951, LEO was complete and it was huge. The machine occupied 5,000 square feet of space and used over 6,000 thermionic valves - many of them being obtained from government surplus shops.

‘As for the memory system or “storage” as it was then known,’ Lyons says, ‘you didn’t see it. It consisted of 64 tubes of mercury delay lines, each five feet long. They had to be housed in a vault beneath the main machine.’

The first operational programme saw LEO calculate Lyons’ weekly product value of baked goods. This was followed by a series of ground-breaking applications including preparing the company’s payroll.

Lyons says: ‘this milestone came on Christmas Eve 1953. The results were astounding. Calculating employees’ pay, until then, had taken an experienced clerk eight minutes per employee. LEO did the job in one and a half seconds. Before long, LEO was being used for as many as ten thousand employees’ pay and it proved 100% reliable.’

A life beyond Lyons

LEO became successful in its own right, helping Lyons drive efficiencies. It was also leased to other organisations, including the Ordnance Board, which used the computer to secretly work on missiles. LEO also worked for the Met Office and helped calculate the 1955 budget.

Such was the machine’s success, LEO II was planned, built and was housed in the space vacated by Lyons’ clerical staff - the staff once responsible, in part, for the firm’s payroll.

In 1954, Lyons spun out its computing arm and formed Leo Computers Ltd. Initially successful, it sold machines across the UK and, with LEO III, across the world. The computer company however faced increasing competition from rivals such as Ferranti, Elliot Brothers and IBM.

By 1962, the Lyons Board needed to focus on their now struggling food and catering businesses. Leo Computers Ltd, the board concluded, would not be able to survive independently and began divestment.

Ending the tale, Lyons says: ’LEO I, the prototype, had operated at Cadby Hall from 1951 until 6pm on Monday 4th of January 1965, when, after 14 years of continuous service, the computer was quietly closed down…’

Summing up the LEO story and explaining how a catering company could make a computer, Frank Land says: ‘To me, it was Lyons’ rigorous approach to planning and doing jobs. Everything had to be done meticulously and the documentation had to be readable.’ Lyons, he believes, was a very scientific and organised company. That made it comparatively easy to computerise the business. Computerisation was, he says, ‘a very natural progression.’