World’s First Business Computer, LEO, Turns 60

The world’s business computer from the food maker JD Lyons, dubbed LEO, is celebrating its 60th birthday

The world’s first business computer – LEO – is celebrating its 60th birthday, a noteworthy event as its arrival heralded the start of computer use within the office.

LEO was officially the first computer used for commercial business applications, and the macine ran its first business application way back in 1951. It was built by an unlikely organisation, namely J. Lyons and Co, which was perhaps best known for its chain of cafes.

Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Frank Land who was involved in the development of LEO explained how it took up a whole room and used 6,000 valves that “generated a lot of heat.” Land is now emeritus professor of information science at the London School of Economics.

Adverts for LEO in the 1950s touted it as a device that “does clerical work more accurately than clerks.”

Integrating Information

“LEO didn’t do much that had not being done before but it did it faster,” Land told the BBC. But Land added it was the first machine that could produce business and commercial reports unlike rival machines, as other computers in the 1950s were simply calculating devices.

“It took silos of information that could be integrated, so it could track sales figures for example, and it could make forecasts from that, which was well ahead of the times in 1950s,” said Land. The commercial applications were extended to include payroll, inventories etc.

But how did a British food company actually make the world’s first commercial computer?

Land explained how J. Lyons was actually a smart company that was always looking at its business processes and seeking ways to improve them. The company dispatched two executives to America in 1947 to look at new business methods developed during the Second World War.

Whilst in the United States, the executives met Herman Goldstine, one of the original developers of ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic computer, and they quickly realised the potential of computers to help in administration tasks within businesses.

LEO’s Arrival

On return to the UK, the executives recommended to the Lyons board that funding should be provided to Douglas Hartree and Maurice Wilkes (later Sir Maurice Wilkes), who were meanwhile building the pioneering EDSAC computer at the University of Cambridge.

After the funding was granted, EDSAC was completed and ran its first program in May 1949. The Lyons board then agreed to build their own machine, which was named LEO (Lyons Electronic Office). The first business application to be run on LEO was Bakery Valuations in late 1951.

In January this year it was announced that the EDSAC computer of Sir Maurice Wilkes would be rebuilt by the Computer Conservation Society at Bletchley Park. Sir Maurice died in November 2010 aged 97.

Meanwhile Lyons decided in 1954 to form LEO Computers Ltd to market the LEO I and its successors (LEO II and LEO III). The company eventually became part of English Electric Company and then ICL, which is now of course Fujitsu.

The LEO I computer had a reported clock speed of 500 kHz, with most instructions taking about 1.5 milliseconds to execute.