From confectionery to business computing

A swiss roll is a sponge cake filled with whipped cream and jam and, as its name suggests, it is rolled up before the entire creation is optionally dusted with icing sugar. Despite its name, the cylinder confection most likely originated in Austria.

However, for our purposes, it is not so much the cake and its beginnings that are fascinating. Rather, this is a story of how a very British love affair with indulgent tea and cakes gave birth to the first commercial computer and, arguably, to the revolutionary notion that business itself could be computerized.

The story begins in 1884 with the founding of a large-scale event caterer called J. Lyons and Co. and culminates in 1951 when Lyons Electronic Office I (LEO for short) launched its first program. Our story is also about the LEO Computer Society: a group of enthusiasts dedicated to preserving and sharing the memory of a machine that truly changed the world.

From cakes to computers

“It was the world’s first commercial computer and it was produced by a catering company,” says Neville Lyons, a member of the Lyons family and the LEO Computers Society. “And you have to remember that the United States, at the time, was saying, ‘We only want to use computers for academic and scientific reasons.’

‘LEO was vitally important because it opened the door for a lot of great companies in the 1950s,’ says Peter Byford, president of the LEO Computers Society. ‘They realized that they could improve their business using computers. Companies like Ford who had two LEO IIs, one for their parts division and one in Dagenham for their core business. The post office stayed with us. They were even getting more LEO IIIs in the 1980s.’

Scientifically Managed Growth

As the 1900s dawned, Lyon expanded rapidly, moving from catering for events to opening its first tea shops. In the 1920s, the company manufactured and sold 36 miles of Swiss Roll each week; by the 1930s Lyons was managing more than 250 tea rooms in London and the rest of the country. The company’s success caused it to branch out into food and hotel manufacturing.

However, Lyons’ success came at a price. As his fortune grew at a rapid rate, his operating overhead began to spiral up. At the height of his powers, Lyons’s Cadby Hall headquarters occupied a 13-acre site in Kensington. There, he manufactured, baked, and distributed his many popular products to all of his tea shops and many other retail outlets across the country.

“By 1939, Lyons employed about 30,000 people across the country,” explains Byford. ‘1,500 were involved in accounting and other statistical work.’

However, Lyons’ management was undaunted by the growing complexity of the business. Rather, he had started preparing for it decades before. “Accounting and office efficiency have been a management concern from the beginning,” Lyons explains. ‘As early as 1910, the company used calculating machines to assess, from the maids’ bills, the average morning and afternoon spending of customers in each of its tea rooms.’

He continues, he explains: ‘With the great expansion of business in the 1920s and always ahead of their time, they realized the need for a scientific approach to business procedures.’

And with that, Lyons began recruiting some of the best brains in the country: many of them young college graduates, whose job it was to focus on creative study and work and early examples of management science or ‘organizational methods’.

Men of science and action.

One such man of action was John Richardson Mainwaring Simmons. Simmons had received a first-class degree in mathematics from Cambridge and had a zest for organization and planning.

“Simmons believed in scientific management,” explains Frank Land OBE, a systems analyst who worked on LEO’s business systems design. ‘In the 1940s, Lyons was very efficient… They developed ways of recording information and photographing it, for example. They had the idea that we should avoid, at all costs, copying data by transcribing it. A piece of data has to be there for everyone. So the order form became the invoice and the invoice became the receipt. They had a very smart system and they wanted to make it smarter.’

Coming to America

To get even smarter, in 1947, at Simmons’ urging, the Lyons board agreed to launch a fact-finding mission to the United States. The firm sent two top mathematicians, TR Thompson and Oliver Standingford, to the United States and instructed them to investigate how the Americas were using electronic computers.

Thompson and Standingford’s mission was not an easy one. “During their stay in the US, they got in touch with almost everyone who was doing serious work in electronic computing, but found that this was concentrated almost exclusively on the technical side, including military applications like ballistic calculations. Lyons explains. .

A visit to Princeton University and a meeting with Professor Goldstine finally gave the two men an answer. Goldstine told them about a project in the mathematics laboratory at Cambridge University. His advice was simple: go home and head to Cambridge.

An answer closer to home

In Cambridge, the two men from Lyons met with Douglas Hartree and Professor Maurice Wilkes (Wilkes, who later found BCS). Hartree and Wilkes were working on a project called EDSAC (Automatic Electronic Delay Storage Calculator). Like the machines in America, it was designed primarily for technical academic calculations and not suitable for commercial applications.

‘Lyons appreciated the potential of the new technology,’ says Byford. “They recommended what might have seemed like a far-fetched proposition: that the Lyons company could design and develop a computer based on Cambridge’s work.”

The Lyons board donated £3,000 to the EDSAC project and in return received guidance on how they could build their computer. However, the caterer was cautious and took a wait-and-see approach.

On May 6, 1949, the Lyon Board received notices that EDSAC had completed its first live work. Says Byford: ‘Simmons passed a note to the Lyons board which was in session at the time. Ten minutes later, he got the signal to start work!

The birth of a giant and a revolution

By 1951, LEO was complete and huge. The machine took up 5,000 square feet of space and used more than 6,000 thermionic valves, many of which were obtained from government surplus stores.

“As for the memory system or ‘storage’ as it was known then,” says Lyons, “you didn’t see it. It consisted of 64 mercury delay line tubes, each five feet long. They had to be housed in a vault below the main machine.

In the first operating program, LEO calculated the weekly value of Lyons’ baked goods. This was followed by a number of innovative applications, including the preparation of company payroll.

Lyons says: ‘This milestone occurred on Christmas Eve 1953. The results were staggering. Calculating the salary of employees, until then, had taken an experienced employee eight minutes per employee. LEO got the job done in a second and a half. Within a short time, LEO was being used to pay up to ten thousand employees and proved to be 100% reliable.’

A life beyond Lyon

LEO was successful in its own right, helping Lyons drive efficiency. It was also leased to other organizations, including the Board of Ordnance, which used the computer to secretly work on missiles. LEO also worked for the Met Office and helped calculate the 1955 budget.

Such was the success of the machine, LEO II was planned, built and housed in space vacated by Lyons’ administrative staff, the staff once responsible, in part, for the company’s payroll.

In 1954 Lyons spun off its computer arm and formed Leo Computers Ltd. Initially successful, it sold machines throughout the UK and, with the LEO III, worldwide. However, the computer company faced increasing competition from rivals such as Ferranti, Elliot Brothers, and IBM.

By 1962, the Lyons Board needed to focus on its now struggling food and catering businesses. Leo Computers Ltd, the board concluded, could not survive independently and began divestment.

At the end of the story, Lyons says: ‘LEO I, the prototype, had operated at Cadby Hall from 1951 until 6:00 p.m. on Monday, January 4, 1965, when, after 14 years of continuous service, the computer was closed quietly…’

Summarizing the LEO story and explaining how a catering company could make a computer, Frank Land says: ‘For me, it was Lyons’ rigorous approach to planning and getting jobs done. Everything had to be done meticulously and the documentation had to be legible.’ Lyons, he believes, was a very scientific and organized company. That made it comparatively easy to computerize the business. Computerization was, he says, ‘a very natural progression’.

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