Last Saturday, we had the pleasure of hosting a session in the University of Warwick What If? Zone of Cheltenham Science Festival, where we asked ‘What does the past and future of computing look like?’…
Down in the climate-controlled strong-rooms of the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, are kept key archives which document the development of the world’s first business computer – Lyons Electronic Office (or LEO for short). In 1995 the MRC took in the papers of John Simmons (1902-1985) – a pioneer of scientific methods of management and instigator of the LEO project.
In 1923, after graduating from Cambridge with first class honours as a mathematician, John Simmons was employed as a management trainee and statistician for J. Lyons & Co. – a large company whose business included bakeries, ice cream, hotels, tea blending and packing, and the well-known Lyons teashops and Corner Houses.
Simmons’ principal task was to oversee improved ways of organising business processes and management information. He quickly made his mark with a series of innovations which transformed many traditional procedures, and in 1932 established a ‘Systems Research’ office which became the fount for the development of new practices.
In 1947 Simmons sent two Lyons employees – Raymond Thompson and Oliver Standingford – to the USA to look into new business practices developed there during the war years. They saw the first electronic computers and identified the potential of these essentially number crunching machines to help Lyons process vast numbers of transactions and rapidly extract the data needed by management.
On their return, Simmons secured the agreement of the Lyons Board to establish a team of pioneering engineers to design and build the first business computer, taking the basic EDSAC design developed by Maurice Wilkes at the University of Cambridge, and transforming it into a machine capable of dealing with vast numbers of business transactions. LEO I was formally completed on 23 December 1953.
It was copies of these documents that we were able to take to Cheltenham Science Festival and share with members of public. These documents inspired a range of activities, such as a ‘date the computer’ quiz and activity sheets for those wanting to try their hand at binary. We also had some craft tables for families, where children were challenged to create their own computers. We had some excellent creations!
We were also lucky enough to have some old computers,which were still in working order! These were very popular with visitors, who had the opportunity to have a play on them.
We were also delighted to be joined by members of the LEO Society, Frank Land, Frank Skinner, John Pinnington and Colin Roach, who all had first hand experience of working with LEO. They had some fantastic anecdotes to share and helped to bring the session to life. There were some interesting discussions prompted by the LEO documents, that helped us not only reflect on the past but provoked questions about the future of computing. For example, the annotated photograph of LEO below shows the practical features of a computer in the 1950s, such as storage, power supply and the control panel.
By the standards of today’s technology LEO could be regarded as belonging to the stone-age. Today a hearing aid or mobile smart phone has many thousand times the storage capacity and speed of LEO and whereas LEO occupied a large room a hearing aid can be sufficiently small to be hidden in the ear.
We asked people to think about…
- What things might you have needed to consider when designing a computer in the 1950s?
- In comparison, what do computer designers need to consider today?
- Are there any new features that are important to today’s computers? Battery life and processing speed for example.
- How has the storage and size of computers changed?
- What do you think computers will look like in 50 years from now? What specifications will still need to be considered and what new aspects will designers need to consider?
- Will considerations move from physical space to ethical or moral choices?
The archive material also prompted questions about the effect that computers have on society and employment. This document warns typists that LEO may put them out of a job, and it could be argued that it did!
A selection of documents relating to the development of LEO between 1947-1955 – including progress reports, photographs and ‘The layman’s guide to LEO’ (one of the first computer manuals) – have been digitised and can be seen online at warwick.ac.uk/leo
We hope those of you who joined us at Cheltenham enjoyed finding out about LEO and the history of computing! Do browse the digitised collection on our website.
Thanks to Charlotte Carroll, Kath Garnett, Colin Williams and our volunteers from WMG for all their help.