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A Computer Called Leo
by Georgina Ferry

Field-Tested by Jonathan Bell

at home in South London

The blurry early days of fatherhood are a not a good place for reading, especially when the topic is as potentially complex and unwieldy as the early history of computing. Thankfully, A Computer Called Leo avoids challenging the inevitable mental drop-outs and attention deficit by assuming zero technical knowledge. As a result, my inevitably brief, but regular, dips into this lost world of family-run business in 1950s Britain provided a curiously nostalgic distraction from the ever-present matter at hand.

LEO, or Lyons Electronic Office, was the bespoke digital computer built by the forward-thinking men and women at J. Lyons, a catering firm with its roots in the Victorian era. Tackling a page a day of Georgina Ferry’s fascinating history meant constant sidetracks as I hunted down more information on the activities of the ever-restless Victorians (a year-long indoor exhibition in London that recreated the canals and gondolas of Venice, for example), or stumbled about within Lyons’ own history, now that the façades of their famous chain of tea houses have long since been submerged beneath tacked-on, plastic fascias and redevelopment.

Lyons was once a forward-thinking company, and after the war, it indulged its finest business minds, giving them free reign to design and build a computer specifically tailored to its needs. The first electronic computer to ever run a commercial program, LEO’s team wanted to alleviate the drudgery of clerical work, mountains of which were generated by the great volume of tiny sales at the company’s bakeries, teashops, and restaurants.

This very English proposition, a supercomputer built to track cream teas, eventually led to Lyons starting their own computer division. It was not a success. The emphasis was placed on programs and systems, rather than hardware or raw power, and the company was soon out of step with the ferocious pace of Defense Department-funded research in the U.S. Towards the end of the fifties, IBM could spend five billion dollars developing its world-beating System 360 series, an investment recouped in just three years. The team behind LEO stood no chance, despite arguably superior projects better suited to complex tasks like payroll and accounting. The geniuses also had poor marketing skills: it wasn’t until the early 1960s that someone thought of using a lion in advertising material.

Lyons was the Starbucks of its day, a nationwide operation that was also an effective barometer of the national mood: fortunes slipped calamitously at the dawn of the fast food era. After abandoning its fledgling computer company, Lyons, too, was swallowed up by a multinational. The name lives on only in a brand of tea bags.

This book inhabited my precious few bytes of downtime, with the occasional page snatched here and there. New baby land is a peculiar place, a perpetual twilight of fragmented sleep and desperate attempts at appeasement and understanding. Being there made the story of men so practical they could blow their own glass, let alone design memory, storage systems, and output devices from scratch, all the more intriguing.

Jonathan Bell writes about architecture and automotive design for Wallpaper* and also edits Things Magazine and is an irregular contributor to The Morning News. He lives in South London with his wife and children.

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