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