David Caminer, creator of the first business computer
We salute the architect of LEO
Unsung Heroes of Tech Business without computers would be unthinkable today. Spare a thought then for those who first made the connection; who not only realised that a computer could be used to run a company, but who also knuckled down to build a system from the ground up and put it to use driving a huge commercial enterprise.
This pioneering work happened here in the UK, in a Britain that was pulling itself together after the ravages of World War II.
The computer's name was LEO, and the man in charge of bringing LEO to life was David Caminer.
Caminer died in 2008 aged 92. His long career in IT had lead him from Lyons & Co., which he joined as a management trainee in 1936, to his eventual role as a senior executive at ICL from which he retired in 1980, receiving an OBE for services to British industry.
Distinguished though that career was, none of Caminer's subsequent achievements exceeded the extraordinary feat he achieved on returning to Lyons in 1943, invalided out of the Green Howard regiment after losing a leg in the battle of Mareth, Tunisia.
Long before Caminer joined Lyons, the enterprise had been run on traditional bean-counter lines. He describes the Lyons accounts department of the early 1920s as "a Dickensian atmosphere of clerks standing at tall mahogany desks". But in 1923, his predecessor, John Simmons, arrived to shake up the whole "bean counter" process.
Rethinking the process
A revolutionary idea at the time, Simmons set up internal markets inside the Lyons empire. Departments became "profit centres", buying in services and material from other departments and selling on through the organisation as if to external customers. He also introduced what came to be known as "Organisation and Methods" (O&M), turning Lyons into a leader in the field of office mechanisation.
By the time Caminer stepped into Simmons' shoes, the job - now officially "Manager of System Research" - had become the keystone of the enterprise. Caminer oversaw operations management, which organised and controlled a logistical system that ran like clockwork, the timely buying of the right amount of wheat, for example, to grind enough flour to make exactly the right number of biscuits.
But the War had left Lyons - and Caminer - with a huge problem. The enterprise was labour-intensive, and, thanks to the war, labour costs were rocketing. Someone suggested that these new-fangled "computers" the Americans were building might provide the solution, and in 1947 two senior managers were sent to the US to investigate the possibilities.
The Americans were amused by the idea. Their prize device, the 30-ton ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) had been publicly launched the previous year as a "general purpose computer". But in the absence of any means of storing programs ENIAC was hard-wired only to calculate shell trajectories for the Artillery - a contribution to the war effort that missed its deadline, being delivered only after the War was over.
Now the University of Pennsylvania was investigating the academic possibilities. But ENIAC to run a business? I don't think so, buddy.
Made in Britain
The Lyons managers returned to the UK with one useful piece of information. The Americans had pointed them towards a group at Cambridge University engaged in building their own computer. The name EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) was the clue to its key difference from ENIAC - it was the first practical computer with a means of storing programs. To do this, it used an array of "delay lines" that retained data as constantly refreshed ripple patterns in troughs of mercury.
Here's an EDSAC simulator showing it in action.
EDSAC was still a work in progress when the Lyons team went to Cambridge to assess its possibilities. They were sufficiently impressed to hand over £3000 - nearly £100,000 in today's money - to speed up the project.
Renamed LEO (Lyons Electronic Office), the version specially built in-house under the lead of a young engineer called John Pinkerton ran its first test programs on 6 May 1949.
But calculating a table of squares and a list of prime numbers wasn't going to make much of a dent in Lyons' labour shortage problems. Caminer's job was getting it to do something useful.
A programming language, even at assembly level, would have been a help. LEO came with no such luxury. But it took Caminer's team only two years to tame the beast, and in November 1951 it was proudly running "The Bakery Valuations Job" to track and cost the labour and material of cakes, biscuits and bread moving through Lyons various profit centres.
LEO had begun earning its crust.
The World First Business Computer
In Caminer's own words: "It was a system with three input channels and two output channels all working concurrently with the computer’s calculating operations. Magnetic tape had been put aside for the time being and the input transports were punched card readers and electronically sensed paper tape readers.
"The output was to a line printer and a card punch. Data were read into buffer stores so as to be ready immediately they were wanted by the calculating unit in the main frame. Similarly, results were flashed out to the output buffers ready for printing or punching.
"It was all like a three ring circus, except that there were many more than three things happening at once."
Caminer's address to The Guildhall conference for business leaders, November 2001
The IBM that might have been
In 1953, Lyons became the first company in the world with a computerised payroll, and soon LEO was in charge of the accounting and stock control of all the company's 180 teashops. The business computer had arrived.
Three years later - and a good 30 years before the word passed into the English language - Lyons began outsourcing LEO's payroll facility to Ford UK. Other clients, including the Met Office, followed, and the facility was spun off to a subsidiary, Leo Computers Ltd, powered by a new version of the machine, the LEO II.
In Caminer's words, the new company was "a high-powered consultancy and software house as well as a computer production line and a service bureau". With the arrival of the LEO III, which replaced valves with germanium transistors, and mercury delay lines with ferrite core memory, Lyons now had a much faster, cooler and more reliable machine that backed its data up onto magnetic tape. It could multi-task.
It became clear that Leo Computers had outgrown its parent - this new game of computers was too rich even for Lyons' deep pockets. With the merger of Leo Computers into English Electric and Marconi to form EELM - a company eventually to snowball towards the end of the 1960s into ICL - the LEO III became, as Caminer describes it, "a world-beating machine". By all accounts it was indeed a direct competitor to the mighty IBM's own 360, introduced in 1964.
But that was the problem. Without the marketing resources of the American giant, relying solely on word of mouth, LEO failed to gain market traction. The IBM 360 became the industry standard, eventually adopted by EELM as a clone called System 4. The era of LEO had come to a close. ®
The Lyons Empire
Founded in 1887 by Joseph Nathaniel Lyons, the company had burgeoned from its original roots in tobacco to a Hydra-headed, market dominant conglomerate. Its food manufacturing arm was famous for its ice cream, but was also a household name for bread, cakes, pies and beverages.
Its Strand Hotels subsidiary ran more than half a dozen London hotels. More famous still was its nationwide chain of tea shops, with flagship "Lyons Corner Houses" in London's West End: multi-storey meet-and-eat venues, each with its own continuously playing orchestra, the musicians managed by Lyons' own Orchestral Department.
As well as its food factories, tea shops, restaurants and hotels, during World War II Lyons had even extended its logistical expertise into running munitions plants. One of the largest catering and food manufacturing companies in the world, its subsidiaries extended across the Commonwealth.