This week, seventy years ago, LEO, the world’s first business computer, ran one of the first enterprise applications after several beta testing runs.
Built for British cafe and restaurant giant J Lyons, Lyons’ online office, called LEO, was inspired by Cambridge EDSAC, which ran its first programs in 1949.
However, the LEO was focused on business, and was initially used for the company’s bakery appraisal jobs (which were run weekly) before expanding its reach into more back office jobs for J Lyons, such as payroll.
LEO I. Pic: Lyon/Center for Computing History
Records published by the Center for Computing History show that the first successful program ran in three parts, beginning on November 28, 1951. The last part was completed on November 30, 1951.
The notebooks of Ernst Lennarts (available in scanned form on the Center for Computing History website), who worked on the computer at the time, document the excitement of the successful run of the first part with “P1 completed today without any hitches!” On November 28, 1951.
Seven decades have passed, and there is still an outburst of excitement when a piece of code does what it should without triggering errors in the console.
Lisa McGuirty, LEO Project Manager at the Center for Computing History record: “LEO, in previous accounts of computing history, was sometimes dismissed simply because it was a copy of EDSAC, but it really wasn’t.
“Lyons had to make major modifications to the EDSAC design to make it suitable for commercial applications.”
Lyons took a strong interest in and made contributions to the EDSAC project in the lead-up to its first program in 1949. With the proof of concept, Lyons began developing LEO, expanding on the EDSAC design.
As for the monster itself, about 2,500 square feet of floor space at Cadby Hall on Hammersmith Road in London was allocated for its construction. Fast paper tape readers were used to feed data into the device; Its memory (ultrasonic delay line memory was based on mercury tanks) was roughly 9kb (larger than EDSAC), and of course this was in the vacuum tube days.
We will dispense with the usual comparisons then versus now; Suffice it to say that pretty much any set of modern IT tools can run loops around LEO.
However, this first business program, designed for bakery appraisal jobs, gave rise to an industry in which many IT workers remain salaried today. LEO itself will continue to take on more tasks, eventually attracting the attention of agencies such as the UK Met Office and initiating the outsourcing concept as Lyons began doing accounts to other companies.
As for the original LEO, LEO II and III will follow, and LEO Computers will eventually be merged into the English Electric Company (EEC). The EEC itself would be incorporated into the ICL as the 1960s drew to a close.
And J Lyons? Despite the efficiencies offered by their pioneering use of computers in the business environment, they have settled into a long decline. The Science Museum in London notes that the last of the LEOs, owned by the Post Office and used to calculate telephone bills, went out of service in 1981, the same year that the last tea shop in Lyon closed.
While efforts are being made at the National Computing Museum to recreate a working EDSAC, there are very few instruments left in low Earth orbit today. “Absolutely nothing is working,” McGuerty said.
Instead, the goal of the LEO Project at the Center for Computing History is to recreate the old LEO I room in the tea tycoon’s Cadby Hall headquarters in Hammersmith, London, with the help of virtual reality.
She said, “This way, we can build things from our archives, as well as bits of video/audio, to bring the LEO to life, rather than just showcasing the hardware.”
Virtual reality may not suit everyone’s taste, however, a short film has been produced full of the contributions of the participants in the project. “Making the film during the pandemic has certainly been a challenge, especially given the age of the remaining pioneers,” McGuerty said.
“But being able to keep the project going because we can use technologies that come from LEO’s first steps in business computing was also very relevant.”
The short film is scheduled to be shown on YouTube on November 30. In the meantime, please join us in raising a glass (or slice of cake) to those pioneers responsible for launching the first commercial app in 70 years. ®