Crumpets and Computers

Crumpets and Computers

How did a chain of English tea shops wind up in the vanguard of business computing? Other companies surely had greater resources for such an undertaking, and perhaps a greater need for the blessings of information technology. One might have expected to find the earliest IT leader among the big banks or insurance companies, with their tremendous burden of paperwork, or perhaps in the aircraft industry, where computers were already in use for engineering and research. For an outfit such as Lyons to leapfrog all of those larger and likelier contenders seems preposterous.

A closer look at J. Lyons & Co. suggests, however, that it's not quite so bizarre. First, describing the company as a chain of tea shops makes it sound small, quaint and probably old-fashioned. In fact, Lyons was a major British manufacturer and retailer with 33,000 employees—the 1950s equivalent of Starbucks, or perhaps McDonald's. And it already had a reputation for managerial and technological innovation. Long before it became the first company to use a computer for business, it was the first to use microfilm, and it was an early adopter of frozen foods and microwave ovens. While the rest of Britain was still counting money in pounds, shillings and pence, Lyons had decimalized its internal accounts. And it had plenty of prior experience with technological "in-sourcing"; the Cadby Hall workshops where LEO was assembled had earlier built custom bakery equipment and delivery vans. Lyons even ran its own laundry and dressmaking operations.

The company attracted serious intellectual talent. John R.M. Simmons and T. Raymond Thompson, the two senior proponents of the LEO project, were both Cambridge "wranglers"—graduates who had earned high honors in mathematics. The pair hired a younger Cambridge alumnus John Pinkerton to oversee hardware development. Other key figures came up within the organization. David T. Caminer, whose function would today be described as system architect, had been hired as a young management trainee. E. H. Lenaerts, Pinkerton's assistant, started out as a clerk and an electrician. (Another junior employee bears mentioning even though she had nothing to do with LEO. Margaret Roberts worked as a chemist at Lyons before launching a political career under her married name, Margaret Thatcher.)

In a memoir about the LEO project, Caminer wrote, "Those who afterwards smiled at the notion of a tea shop concern designing and manufacturing advanced electronic equipment and putting it to work are misleading themselves. Lyons was not just a small back room of cooks and waitresses. Technically, it was a remarkably comprehensive and self-reliant organization that had long experience of recognizing way-out ideas and carrying them through to timely fruition."

A self-reliant organization—but not an isolated one. The group that built LEO were not basement tinkerers, working alone and cut off from the rest of the world. They were well aware of the computer work going on in various U.S. laboratories. Thompson and an assistant had visited the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton and Harvard universities in 1947. And the team worked in especially close collaboration with Cambridge University, where the pioneering computer called EDSAC was under construction. Indeed, much of LEO's design was copied directly from EDSAC.

Even with these resources to draw upon, however, the board's decision to build LEO was clearly an act of high adventure. You can't help but admire their pluck. For a similarly situated company to try the same thing today would be unthinkable folly.

This article was originally published on 11-01-2001
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