Congratulations! You've just been named CIO of J. Lyons & Co., a prosperous British firm with a chain of tea shops and popular brands of baked goods and ice cream. The board of directors expects your department to streamline the company's clerical work and provide up-to-the-minute analysis of sales and costs. With your experience in office automation and decision-support systems, the task ought to be straightforward. There's just one catch: It's 1949, and software for the tasks you've been assigned doesn't exist. As a matter of fact, the very word "software" has yet to be coined. You'll have to write all your own applications. As you get to work on that job, keep in mind that programming languages are still in the future as well, so you'll have to code in absolute binary. Oh, and one more thing: Lyons doesn't actually have a computer yet. Your first job is to build one.

A tall order at any time, but remarkably, all these challenges were met by the Lyons staff. For starters, they assembled a do-it-yourself computer they called LEO, for Lyons Electronic Office, which filled up a room the size of a tennis court at Cadby Hall, the Lyons headquarters in London. While the hardware was under construction, another in-house team set to work on flowcharts for the software, and then turned these specifications into finely tuned and carefully checked machine code. In mid-November 1951— just 50 years ago this month—LEO ran its first program on live data. It was the first time anywhere in the world that an electronic stored-program computer had been applied to routine business operations—and some operations that weren't so routine. LEO was designed not just to automate clerical tasks such as payroll but also to provide management with a tool for analyzing near-real-time sales data, giving Lyons a strategic advantage over its competitors. It's a story about innovation in the service of clear business goals—and it led to an extraordinary record of exponential growth in computing power. Yet the most important lesson to be learned from the story of LEO stems from its inventors' warning, early on, that productivity isn't just a matter of power, but of applying that power creatively to the task at hand.

This article was originally published on 11-01-2001
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