It was, surprisingly, a British catering firm, J. Lyons and Co – famous for their teashops, Swiss rolls and ice cream which pioneered the development of computing for commercial applications. As Guinness World Records ratifies, Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) was the first business computer in the world.
In 1951 the LEO I computer was operational and ran the world’s first regular routine office computer job.
The LEO Computers Society (which has charitable status) started life as a reunion society for people who worked on these remarkable machines. Its principal mission now is to ensure that LEO’s heritage is preserved, protected and – importantly – promoted to wider audiences.
In 2018, The Society formed a partnership with the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge and together we gained important funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. We are working on a joint project called ‘Swiss Rolls, Tea and the Electronic Office: A History of LEO, the First Business Computer.’ So far, we have gathered together a large amount of LEO memorabilia – much of it from generous members.
Our partners in Cambridge have archived this material and are working on digitising it.
Our comprehensive catalogue of all material related to LEO – LEOpedia – is also being incorporated into the project. We aim to establish a single window on to all LEO collections wherever they are – our archive includes artefacts, written and oral memoirs, documents, engineering drawings – in fact, anything LEO-related. We are also planning exciting new ways to tell the LEO story – for example, by creating a virtual reality (VR) version of LEO I.
We are very grateful for this lottery funding and are now together bidding for a further phase so that we can carry out our ambitious aims to make the LEO story come alive.
The importance of LEO has been recognised by displays in many prestigious institutions such as the Science Museum, London, the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, the Centre for Computing History, Cambridge and as far away as Mountain View, California.
There are historic LEO materials held in several universities and archives including those at Manchester, Warwick, Melbourne University and the Charles Babbage Institute, USA. Oral histories of LEO pioneers and practitioners are available to listen to on websites such as that of The British Library.
Other activities of the Society include:
- supporting a PhD student at Middlesex University
- promoting LEO lectures
- arranging talks on LEO to clubs and societies
- organising reunions/exhibitions
- publishing a regular newsletter ‘LEO Matters’
- selling copies of books on LEO – by Peter Bird, Georgina Ferry – and an anthology of reminiscences of those who worked on LEO themselves