Thursday, 10 November 2011

Happy birthday LEO: the first office computer

It's 60 years since J. Lyons & Co, owners of the Lyons tea shop chain, invented the first office computer, LEO (short for the Lyons Electronic Office). It was a tour de force of engineering, and this video is a great overview of the manufacturing and operation of it. It also highlights many of the uses LEO was put to when its services were offered on a bureau basis (later, LEO Computers was formed to manufacture and sell the hardware itself - this was eventually merged into English Electric LEO Marconi, and thence subsumed into ICL).

If you're interested in a book about it, I can recommend Georgina Ferry's excellent paperback, A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the world's first office computer.

For a more technical treatment, L.E.O.: Incredible Story of the World's First Business Computer, which features first-hand descriptions from the creators of LEO, is a superb book, although a little hard to find now.


  1. After watching the entire video, one predominate and recurring thought was:

    From creation of LEO to bakery shop getting correct inventory, it seems that the huge number of people employed could of done the job faster and less expensively.

    There's a TON of people creating, building, inspecting, typing, punching numbers, calculating, recalculating, checking, rechecking, etc....

    As example, Ford Motor Company, re-allocate those "computer" programmers (feeders) to the payroll division and I bet those checks get out faster with less cost.

    What did LEO cost? 10Million pounds?

    After watching this video, I'm left with the conclusion that this new invention really served to only hire a multitude of people to run the darn thing.

  2. @ Anonymous - many thanks for your comment. As briefly mentioned in the video, one of the 'problems' in 50s Britain was almost full employment. This lead to a lack of interest in low-paid clerical drudge-work and hence hugely increasing payroll costs (they had to pay more to get workers) for companies wanting to do this type of labour-intensive admin operation.

    This was one of the (several) drivers behind the LEO project. I'd recommend Georgina Ferry's book for some good background on the circumstances.