Bakeries & Electric Brains
THE STORY OF J. LYONS AND CO. AND THE FIRST BUSINESS COMPUTER
Computers and the business world are inseparable today. Trillions of transactions are made and tracked electronically, currency is moved, invoices are paid, and values fluctuate in a digital ecosystem. We understand that this wasn’t always the case, but the lines that divide such eras in our history are rarely so well defined.
Imagine the modern digital economy of the United Kingdom, what does it look like? in 2018 digital payments surpassed cash transactions for the first time in the nation’s history. This modern G8 country is taking full advantage of the technological advancements of our time, but when you look at the industries, the and the scale of their operations, how much has changed in the last 70-80 years?
As an early 21st century individual, you’d almost feel at home in the London of 1947, the world population was less than half of what it is today, but living in the city, you’d hardly notice. There’d be some infrastructure you would recognise, and companies would be producing many of the same commercial products that they still are today. The system worked, and all without the use of a single computer by any commercial entity. One had to be first.
Enter J. Lyons and Co., one of the UK's leading food manufacturing and catering companies in the early 20th century. If you liked tea, biscuits and frequented restaurants, you’d have known Lyons. In 1947 the company sent two of its senior managers, Oliver Standingford and Raymond Thompson, to the USA to explore advancements in business practices that were developed during World War II. The thought was that some of those techniques, developed out of necessity to help businesses endure under strain of the war, may have profound applications to a large, and still growing commercial entity like Lyons. The inquisitive pair met Herman Goldstine during their visit. Goldstine was one of the original developers of ENIAC, the first general-purpose digital computer. ENIAC or the “Giant Brain” as the press had once called it, was a modular computer composed of large vertical panels, each was designed to perform dedicated functions. Several of these modules were accumulators that could add, subtract, and even hold a ten-digit decimal value in memory. Of course, that doesn’t sound overly impressive by today’s standards, but to put it in practical terms relevant to the era: ENIAC could calculate an artillery shell’s trajectory in 30 seconds, the same work would have normally taken a qualified human 20 hours. This was a game changer.
Standingford and Thompson’s eyes were opened. Their mind’s reeled at all the time spent making calculations and valuations while operating a major enterprise, this had the potential to reduce the time needed to perform these tasks and simultaneously remove many of the errors. Being somewhat connected in the burgeoning field, Goldstine informed the pair that work on a similar project was being done right in their own backyard. Back in the UK, at the University of Cambridge, Douglas Hartree and Maurice Wilkes were building a machine then called the EDSAC computer.
The two senior managers from Lyons visited Hartree and Wilkes in Cambridge soon after returning to the UK. They could tell early on that there was promise in this project. In a moment where history sounds more like fiction, the pairs were the perfect match. Hartree and Wilkes were on track to complete EDSAC with twelve to eighteen months, but they believed that time could be substantially reduced with additional funding. Not long after that visit, Standingford and Thompson penned a report to the Lyons' board recommending that they acquire or produce a computer to meet the increasing needs of the business. The board was convinced. Lyons would go on to provide Hartree and Wilkes with £2,500 funding to advance the work on their “electric brain”, and they would also assign Ernest Lenaerts, a Lyons electrical engineer, to assist with the project. With the additional help, EDSAC was completed and ran its first program in May 1949.
EDSAC was a wonderful proof of concept, and the Lyons' board agreed to start the construction of their own machine, using what worked best about the EDSAC design and pushing it forward. The Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) was born. John Pinkerton, a radar engineer and research student at Cambridge, was recruited to be the team leader on the LEO project, and Lenaerts returned to Lyons to be part of the team. On 15 February 1951 a functional example of LEO was demonstrated to Princess Elizabeth. After this public unveiling, the first business application was prepared. On September 5th, 1951 a program designed to calculate bakery valuations was run, and by late November that same year, LEO had taken over bakery valuations completely.
That’s how a British Food Manufacturer helped to advance how businesses operate across the globe. Comparable revolutions are almost certainly on the horizon. Even though there are more failed research ventures than fruitful ones, once in a while the right person in the right place realizes that they’re witnessing the birth of a revolution. Had it not been Lyons, sooner or later another business would surely have been the first to use a computer for a commercial application. Still, one can’t help but wonder how much further along or farther back we’d be as a society if we’d had more or less of these chance meetings in our history.
1. "Leo Computers Society" at www.leo-computers.org.uk. (Dates and Personnel on LEO Project)
2. How a cake company pioneered the first office computer Video interview with Mary Coombs, who worked on the first LEO computer and was the first woman to become a commercial computer programmer (Dates regarding Lyons Staff)
3. "Developing LEO: The world's first business computer", documents from the papers of John Simmons, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick
4. Life magazine: 1937-08-16, p.45 (Overseas Air Lines Rely on Magic Brain)
5. Hidden Histories of the Information Age BBC Radio 4 series, programme about LEO
6. ZDNet.com - ENIAC: Calculated history of the computer (Clarification on trajectory calculation subject)
The First Business Computer
Lyons Tea enamel sign at the GCR - CC BY-SA 3.0
A busy scene at Lyons Corner House Brasserie, Coventry Street, London, 1942
Customers enjoying afternoon tea at Lyon's Corner House on Coventry Street, London, 1942
EDSAC (19) CC BY 2.0