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A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the world's first office computer [Paperback]

Georgina Ferry
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
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Book Description

26 Feb 2010 P.S.

The eccentric story of one of the most bizarre marriages in the history of British business: the invention of the world's first office computer and the Lyons Teashop.

The Lyons teashops were one of the great British institutions, providing a cup of tea and a penny bun through the depression and the war, though to the 1970s. Yet Lyons also has a more surprising claim to history.

In the 1930s John Simmons, a young maths graduate in charge of the clerks' offices, had a dream: to build a machine that would automate the millions of tedious transactions and process them in as little time as possible. Simmons' quest for the first office computer – the Lyons Electronic Office – would take 20 years and involve some of the most brilliant young minds in Britain.

Interwoven with the story of creating LEO is the story of early computing, from the Difference Engine of Charles Babbage to the codecracking computers at Bletchley Park and the instantly obsolescent ENIAC in the US. It is also the story of post war British computer business: why did it lose the initiative? Why did the US succeed while British design was often superior?

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A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the world's first office computer + Colossus: The secrets of Bletchley Park's code-breaking computers + Alan Turing: The Enigma
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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; (Reissue) edition (26 Feb 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841151866
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841151861
  • Product Dimensions: 1.9 x 12.7 x 19 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 246,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Georgina is the author of Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life, a biography of the only British woman scientist to win a Nobel Prize and THE COMMON THREAD (with John Sulston) which is short listed for the 2002 Samuel Johnson Prize. Born in Hong Kong, Georgina has lived in Oxford for the past 19 years. She has worked as a science writer and broadcaster.

Product Description

Amazon Review

Whether you like a good story, social history, computers, or are just nostalgic about Joe Lyons' "caffs", A Computer Called LEO is an appealing tale, illustrated with black and white photos, about the advent of the first computer.

Georgina Ferry conjures up the image of some 300 female accounts clerks, clacking away continuously on their Burroughs mechanical calculators checking bills against takings for the 250 or so J Lyons & Co high street teashops in the 1930s. The manager of the accounting operation in pre-war times was a bright young man called John Simmons. According to Ferry, as Simmons surveyed the room "all he saw was a waste of human intelligence" and he began to dream of the day when machines would be invented capable of doing all this work automatically. Within 10 years he made the first stage in that dream a reality by persuading the board of Lyons that their company must become the first in the world to build its own electronic digital computer. A Computer Called LEO is the wonderful story of this one remarkable man's ambition and success in achieving it.

Ferry interweaves LEO's story with the history of computing. British mathematicians have played an integral role in this development ever since the days of Charles Babbage (1792-1871). Like Simmons, Babbage had been interested in improved factory management. The ultimately tragic figure of Alan Turing and the wartime development of computers at Bletchley Park also figure in the lead up to LEO.

Development was delayed by World War II and Ferry expertly goes on to tell how, on November 29, 1951, LEO took over Bakery Valuations and became the first computer in the world to run a routine office job. But it wasn't until 1954 that LEO was judged reliable enough to finally take over from the clerks. By the following year, John Simmons had fulfilled his dream and was able to declare that "LEO leaves clerks free to use their brains to their own greater benefit and the service of the community". One needs to add that to Lyons & Co's great credit this was achieved without any compulsory redundancies; indeed employment increased. Britain led the world in computer development at the time and there was considerable potential for the turning of a cottage industry in to an international money-maker, but that required considerable investment.

The end of Ferry's story of LEO tells of how Britain let an advantage slip from their grasp as US money, muscle, management and determination took over and IBM went on to win the day. --Douglas Palmer. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


'A COMPUTER CALLED LEO is as captivating a book as you could hope for, whether it's industrial history you're after, or a commentary on the development of computing, or social documentary, or an elegant tragedy. One reads it with a growing sense of gloomy fatalism and even gloomier recognition. But one also reads it with admiration and fascination, not just for Georgina Ferry's poised, cool and elegant storytelling but for the people involved in the making of LEO, who, before they were let down by the suits, did something extraordinary because nobody had told them it couldn't be done.' Michael Bywater, Daily Telegraph

‘Meticulously researched and cogently written, it sets the story in the wider context of early computer development both in America and the UK.' Fanny Blake, The Times

‘This is not a book for computer nerds, but one for anyone curious about mid-20th-century Britain's unique combination of engineering genius and economic frailty.' Sunday Telegraph

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
As an enthusiast of vacuum tube radio technology, with its smells of hot dust and pipe tobacco, I found the story of the Lyons Electronic Office to be a superb metaphor for the British approach to engineering - uncertain, incremental, cautious, yet with flashes of great brilliance.
John Simmons and his team knew they were far ahead of everyone else (just as, earlier, at Bletchley Park, Thomas Flowers and Alan Turing must have known the same about their 'Colossus' machine) and we see that the dedication and enthusiasm produced by that awareness led them to the very forefront of an emerging technology. In 2003, vacuum tubes and tanks of mercury must seem very 'Heath Robinson' to us, yet it is worth reflecting upon the vast distance the computing industry has travelled in the 50 years since LEO. For a vivid example of this journey - go to the Science Museum in London and take a look at the Ferranti 'Pegasus' machine on display as a contemporary of LEO.
Alas, the business world failed to capitalise on the opportunity and the subsequent mergers meant opportunity was lost.In fairness, the author does make the point that the mergers that led to the creation of ICL had to happen to make the industry, as a whole, stand any kind of chance against the huge US market. Despite this, the Americans were still able to achieve dominance.
This is a fascinating story, skilfully told to engage and capture the reader's attention. There are no heavy techie details and no long/boring corporate manifestos - just the plain simple story of the vision of those who saw an opportunity to advance their own view of the application of knowledge for the benefit of all.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
There are two stories in this satisfying little book: one the story of a computer, or rather line of computers, and the other the story of a company. The curve of the Lyons company is traced from the company's origins in catering for exhibitions in the 19th century, through its heights in the 20s and 30s when its tea shops were the clerical worker's favoured lunch stop, to the post-way years of austerity when formica had replaced marble and service by waitresses (or "Nippys") had given way to self-service. At this point a visionary management, always looking for increased efficeincy in the business of getting buns from bakeries to plates as cost-effectively as possible, starts to automate its clerical functions by computer. What was so remarkable about this, as Georgina Ferry makes very clear, was that no company in the woorld had previously done this. Computers had been tools for universities and government researchers, not management information systems for businesses. What emerges clearly from her account is that the systems developers never lost sight of business needs in their extraordinary efforts to invent an industry from scratch. This book has several delights: the description of mercury delay lines shows how difficult it was to implement memory in the pre-semiconductor age and the continuous Swiss Roll bakery is a hard image to forget.
Ironically in view of its origins in "temperance fare", Lyons was swallowed up by a brewery at last. The computer subsidiary, having blazed a trail in business automation, was itself consumed by English Electric to become part of ICL and later Fujitsu. Georgina Ferry - wisely - does not draw too explicitly conclusions about British entrepreneurial skills from the whole history: she leaves us however with an impression that the history of computing in Britain and elsewhere might have been very different if opportunities had been grasped.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating story well told 13 Dec 2004
I'm only a few chapters into this book, but am back to buy another copy to give to a friend.
If you are interested in how innovation happens in business, or in the development of the computer industry, or in the application from first principles of computers to real-world problems, or in productive co-operation between industry and academia, or in user-centred product development, or in how immigrants can benefit an economy, then there is raw material for you in this book. It is (at least as far as I have read) a gripping story rather than an academic analysis- read how it was, and then if you feel so inclined draw your own conclusions.
When I joined the computer industry in 1965, a friend in IBM confided in me that the Leo (Lyons Electronic Office) series of computers (already in there last days) were IBM's most serious rival in commercial computing. This book makes this entirely credible. If you're British, read it and reflect on how British people managed to invent both commercial computing and the web, and yet Britain manages now to be a distant follower in both areas of endeavour.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
By Keith Appleyard VINE VOICE
Being 'in the trade' myself, and having used in my time Computers from Elliott, ICT, GEC, ICL, Data General, DEC, Burroughs, as well as IBM, I wondered whether this would just be a 're-hash' of some old war stories.
I was pleasantly surprised as to how Georgina Ferry had managed to breathe fresh life into the old tale.
It's particularly ironic today with all the emphasis on Data Modelling, Business Modelling, UML etc to look back at John Simmons's work and see just how visionary he was to take a Business-driven approach to both software & hardware nearly 40 years ago.
One puzzle remains : John Simmons retired in 1968; there's no mention in this book of what happened to him thereafter, but we do get biographies of all the other key characters.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 11 days ago by Richard D Palmer
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
if you're interested computers then I would strongly recommend this book.
Published 19 days ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars History put right
If you are under the mistaken impression that the Computer was invented by Bill Gates or the Americans then you need to read this book. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Ray
5.0 out of 5 stars Good history of LEO Computers
From Lyons business requirements as a business to the
evolution of an electronic machine that could analyse its
requirements, organise deliveries efficiently and also... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Pepe
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting piece of history
Good that this story has been told - an interesting piece of technical and social history about can-do pioneers in the 1950s.
Published 16 months ago by John Scholes
4.0 out of 5 stars An Incredible tale
It's difficult to imagine a company today deciding to embark on such an ambitious project as building their own computer and writing the software to run on it. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Aurial Chambers
2.0 out of 5 stars Inaccurate
During the early 1950s, J. Lyons and Co., a major British corporation celebrated for its fine foodstuffs and chain of tearoom cafes, pioneered the introduction of some of the very... Read more
Published on 2 Mar 2012 by Jeremy E. May
5.0 out of 5 stars A step from the Corner House into the future
An interesting read, a step in the history of computing that should be made more of. One of the steps between the early days of Bletchly Park, and the modern PC.
Published on 10 Nov 2011 by harp860
4.0 out of 5 stars Close to Home
Main reason I brought this book {the first one I purchased on Amazon} was because, my Dad worked at Cadby Hall in the 50's, 60's and 70's, not on LEO, but in the Factory, making... Read more
Published on 20 April 2011 by Malcolm
5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling account of innovation
What an enjoyable book this was. The author has done a fine job both in research and in the way the period, personalities and business practices are described. Read more
Published on 9 Dec 2010 by GJ_Reading
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