LEO, the first business computer

Recently  it was the 60th anniversary of LEO, the world’s first business computer—built by J.Lyons & Co, a leading British food manufacturer at the time that also ran a famous chain of tea shops.

Lyons management had long been keen to streamline their back-office operations. In 1947, two Lyons managers visited the U.S. to learn about the latest business processes, including whether the electronic computers they’d heard about during their wartime service, like ENIAC, might be useful. (At the time, the closer-to-home advances at Bletchley Park were still a well-kept military secret.)

They returned inspired by the possibilities and keen to build a machine of their own. After several years of development, LEO, a.k.a. Lyons Electronic Office, took on its first office job on November 17, 1951—weekly valuations for the bakery division, calculating margins on Lyon’s output of bread, cakes and pies.

Until LEO, computing in a work setting was treated like a specialist bit of kit on a factory production line. Each machine was dedicated to a single task. In essence, they were narrowly defined calculating machines. The vision for LEO, in contrast, was bravely broad. LEO was a single computer capable of handling a whole swathe of accounting and bookkeeping tasks, as well as producing daily management reports.

LEO was such a success that Lyons set up a commercial subsidiary to sell spare time on LEO to other businesses, including the Ford Motor Company, which used it to process the payroll for the thousands of workers at its U.K. plant. Later, Lyons also built entirely new LEOs and sold them to other blue-chip companies of the era. In total, more than 70 LEO’s were built, with the last remaining in service until the 1980’s (not bad for a computer that took up an entire room!).

Today we view IT as critical to any enterprise, but in the 1950s, this was by no means a given, as evidenced by a quote from a 1954 issue of The Economist: “There are those who do not believe in the desirability of introducing anything as esoteric as electronics into business routine.” Things certainly have changed, and in a sense, all modern day businesses owe a debt to the LEO team.

A remarkable Soviet computing pioneer

Sixty years ago today, in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the Soviet Academy of Sciences finally granted formal recognition to Sergey Lebedev’s pioneering MESM project. MESM, a Russian abbreviation for “Small Electronic Calculating Machine,” is regarded as the earliest, fully operational electronic computer in the Soviet Union—and indeed continental Europe.

Recently we were privileged to get a first-hand account of Lebedev’s achievements from Boris Malinovsky, who worked on MESM and is now a leading expert on Soviet-era computing.

Described by some as the “Soviet Alan Turing,” Sergey Lebedev had been thinking about computing as far back as the 1930’s, until interrupted by war. In 1946 he was made director of Kyiv’s Institute of Electrical Engineering. Soon after, stories of “electronic brains” in the West began to circulate and his interest in computing revived.

Sergey Lebedev*

Initially, Lebedev’s superiors were skeptical, and some in his team felt working on a “calculator”—how they thought of a computer—was a step backward compared to electrical and space systems research. Lebedev pressed on regardless, eventually finding funding from the Rocketry department and space to work in a derelict former monastery in Feofania, on the outskirts of Kyiv.

Work on MESM got going properly at the end of 1948 and, considering the challenges, the rate of progress was remarkable. Ukraine was still struggling to recover from the devastation of its occupation during WWII, and many of Kyiv’s buildings lay in ruins. The monastery in Feofania was among the buildings destroyed during the war, so the MESM team had to build their working quarters from scratch—the laboratory, metalworking shop, even the power station that would provide electricity. Although small—just 20 people—the team was extraordinarily committed. They worked in shifts 24 hours a day, and many lived in rooms above the laboratory. (You can listen to a lively account of this time in programme 3 of the BBC’s ”Electronic brains” series.)

MESM and team members in 1951. From left to right: Lev Dashevsky, Zoya Zorina-Rapota, Lidiya Abalyshnikova, Tamara Petsukh, Evgeniy Dedeshko

MESM ran its first program on November 6, 1950, and went into full-time operation in 1951. In 1952, MESM was used for top-secret calculations relating to rocketry and nuclear bombs, and continued to aid the Institute’s research right up to 1957. By then, Lebedev had moved to Moscow to lead the construction of the next generation of Soviet supercomputers, cementing his place as a giant of European computing. As for MESM, it met a more prosaic fate—broken into parts and studied by engineering students in the labs at Kyiv’s Polytechnic Institute.

*All photos thanks to ukrainiancomputing.org.

Street View imagery in Belgium

 

Along with the ski resorts , Google has now pushed out new Street View imagery across Belgium.

 

belgium.jpg 

The coverage in Belgium is remarkably comprehensive, with virtually every road now viewable in Street View. To see it for yourself, just search for “Belgium” in Google Earth, then drag the peg man on to the map.