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A Computer Called Leo (P.S.) Paperback – August 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews


'A COMPUTER CALLED LEO is as captivating a book as you could hope for, whether it's industrial history you're after, or a commentary on the development of computing, or social documentary, or an elegant tragedy. One reads it with a growing sense of gloomy fatalism and even gloomier recognition. But one also reads it with admiration and fascination, not just for Georgina Ferry's poised, cool and elegant storytelling but for the people involved in the making of LEO, who, before they were let down by the suits, did something extraordinary because nobody had told them it couldn't be done.' Michael Bywater, Daily Telegraph 'Meticulously researched and cogently written, it sets the story in the wider context of early computer development both in America and the UK.' Fanny Blake, The Times 'This is not a book for computer nerds, but one for anyone curious about mid-20th-century Britain's unique combination of engineering genius and economic frailty.' Sunday Telegraph

About the Author

Georgina is the author of Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life, a biography of the only British woman scientist to win a Nobel Prize and THE COMMON THREAD (with John Sulston) which is short listed for the 2002 Samuel Johnson Prize. Born in Hong Kong, Georgina has lived in Oxford for the past 19 years. She has worked as a science writer and broadcaster.

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Product Details

  • Series: P.S.
  • Paperback: 242 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins UK (August 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841151866
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841151861
  • Product Dimensions: 4.8 x 0.7 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,236,357 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on March 31, 2005
Format: Paperback
I was in a gift stop a couple of weeks ago, and made a purchase, for which the clerk took a form book, wrote down what I was buying and the price (she added tax mentally and did not need a calculator), and having finished, she gave me a carbon copy and I was on my way. It has been years since I had such a pen and paper transaction. There is almost always an electronic cash register now, and it is usually hooked up to the big store computer, which also does the inventory, pay slips, and many other accounting and management functions. There was a time when computers were not a part of businesses, and now there is a time that they are almost universal. What was the first business computer, and what company put it to work? The surprising answer is in _A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Teashops and the World's First Office Computer_ (Harper Perennial) by Georgina Ferry. It is an enchanting book about times long ago, even if it is about industrial history and computer development. The boffins who made and used their hand-built computer were well ahead of their times, and at least partially because of that, we know IBM and we don't know LEO, but LEO is worth knowing about.

Lyons was a firm one would not have predicted to be in the vanguard of business technology. Its famous stores throughout Britain served tea and cakes. As Ferry says, "A background in catering is not normally seen as an obvious qualification for hi-tech startup companies." But the Lyons shops had a progressive management, interested in contemporary scientific management principles, and took on a Cambridge graduate in mathematics, who realized that the primitive computers being developed in the US could be used for business.
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Format: Paperback
The world's first business computer was developed by Lyons, a British tea and catering company. It was the Lyons Electronic Office, or LEO, and it ran its first task, the bakery division's payroll, on 12 February 1954.

Lyons was a family business founded late in the 19th century. It ran one of the first franchise fast food chains, offering set tea meals served at the customer's table by prim waitresses. Much like McDonald's today, the firm understood that each transaction between Lyons and its customers brought only a few pennies into the family coffers, therefore viability and commercial success depended on efficient operational and clerical administration, particularly for controlling inventory and registering transactions.

In 1923 Lyons hired John Simmons, a Cambridge honours mathematics graduate, as a management trainee. Simmons turned out to be a brilliant manager and sought out every opportunity to rationalize and simplify clerical operations. When computers appeared in the late 1940s and two junior staff proposed using them at Lyons, Simmons enthusiastically agreed they should explore the idea further.

Lyons soon realized that the nature of business differed from that of science. Instead of resolving a few complex problems, business required speedy processing of many simple problems. Available scientific computers weren't adequate, and besides they were expensive and had to be imported form America.

Lyons decided to build its own, and LEO was born. Because it was designed specifically to meet business needs and because the project was led by Lyons's avant-garde Systems division, LEO proved a greater success than anyone had dared hope and the division was spun off as a separate company.

Sadly the venture never took off.
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By pparadigm on September 22, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this book. One of the other reviewers seemed to take exception to some of the details, but I learned much about a part of computer history which I was unfamiliar with. A well written book I thought.
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Format: Paperback
During the early 1950s, J. Lyons and Co., a major British corporation celebrated for its fine foodstuffs and chain of tearoom cafes, pioneered the introduction of some of the very first office application software to accomplish core business tasks like invoicing, payroll, order management, stock control and distribution, tasks which had formerly been exclusively clerical in nature. To accomplish its goal, Lyons went into partnership in 1948 with the Computer Science Laboratory at Cambridge University to build an electronic digital computer called LEO (i.e. Lyons Electrical Office). This, the LEO 1, was devised from the get-go as a copy of EDSAC, a machine nearing fruition at the Laboratory under its remarkable director, Maurice Wilkes, and soon to become the world's first fully-fledged example of the new generation of stored-program computers. But whereas EDSAC was intended primarily for scientific work, in particular the execution of successive differential equations requiring relatively little memory to process, priority was given at the outset to equip LEO 1 with a significantly expanded memory to enable the retention of the vastly greater quantity of input and output data typical of office applications. The very repetitive processing also characteristic of such applications necessitated a focus on faster and more reliable peripheral devices like tape drives, printers etc. and the development of fault-finding application software to monitor their operation. A specialist, largely autonomous, computer division under the inspired direction of John Pinkerton, a former radar colleague of Wilkes, was established within the company to manage progress on LEO.Read more ›
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