A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the world’s first office computer

Georgina Ferry

The eccentric story of one of the most bizarre marriages in the history of British business: the invention of the world’s first office computer and the Lyons Teashop.

The Lyons teashops were one of the great British institutions, providing a cup of tea and a penny bun through the depression, the war, austerity and
on into the sixties and seventies. Yet Lyons also has a more surprising claim to history.

In the 1930s John Simmons, a young graduate in charge of the clerks’ offices that totalled all the bills issued by the ‘Nippies’ and kept track of the costs of all the tea, cakes and other goods distributed to the nation’s cafes and shops, became obsessed by the new ideas of scientific management. He had a dream: to build a machine that would automate the millions of tedious transactions and process them in as little time as possible.

In ‘A Computer Called LEO’, Georgina Ferry recounts the unique story of Simmons’ quest for the first office computer – the Lyons Electronic Office. It would take 20 years and involve some of the most brilliant young minds in Britain.

Interwoven with the story of the building of LEO is the story of early computing itself from the Difference Engine of Charles Babbage to the codecracking computers of Bletchley Park and the instantly obsolescent ENIAC, developed in the US. It is also the story of the post war British computer business; why did it lose the initiative? Why did America succeed while British design was often superior?

Georgina Ferry’s account of a forgotten triumph in British history is a timely corrective and an exuberant celebration of one of the least likely marriages in business history: the Lyons teashop and the cutting edge ofcomputer science

Reviews of A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the world’s first office computer

    • ‘Stylish and lucid, a combination of social history and science, Georgina Ferry’s fascinating book reveals how one of Britain’s most famous firms, J.S. Lyons, went from teacakes to computers, becoming a technological pioneer.’ Brenda Maddox
    • on THE COMMON THREAD: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome (co-authored with John Sulston)’Unputdownable stuff … an insider’s story of one of the century’sgreatest technopolitical ventures’ Guardian’I found this a riveting account of what was going on behind the scenes…Anyone who is fascinated by the politics and ethics of research should readThe Common Thread.’ Financial Times’A compelling and frank account.’ The Times