Chapter 5: LEO the Lyons computer

If one story “sold” the original series to Radio 4 it had to be the one about the world-famous British food company that also built the world’s first business computer, and gave it a cuddly name. Lyons, so famous for its teashops, corner houses, and ice cream needed to computerise its clerical operations after World War 2 but the few computers in the world were still in development. No-one could buy a business computer "off the shelf" in 1946 -- only a very few people could even conceive of such a device. 
 
 
David Caminer conceived the extraordinary "Teashops Distribution Program" on LEO.
       
So Lyons built their own computer.   
           

To understand the reason they could even contemplate such a breathtaking step you need to understand the company’s history, which is why that is how both the radio programme and this chapter of the book start. For that I am totally indebted to Peter Bird, who worked for Lyons for many years and then became the unofficial company historian, chronicling in exhaustive but highly readable detail the roots of this astonishing company in the late 19th century through to its virtual disappearance around 100 years later.

    
       
You can get a hint of that history on a walk round London: 
         
(1) Start at Ponti’s caffe in Piccadilly. This was the very first Lyons Teashop, opened in 1894. Buy a coffee at the front counter – they do great coffee, this is a proper Italian operation – and go through to the back. Relax and look up at the ceiling, and there is the original Lyons stucco plasterwork.   
  
 
   
Ralph Land, in Lyons first Teashop, now Ponti's Caffe
   
  (2) Take the tube or a bus to Hammersmith Road and walk along to Brook Green. Turn up there, walk 100 yards and on your left is the EMI building. It’s distinctive because there is no obvious way in, though if you hang around for the next visitor – and they come and go every few minutes – you will see the hidden glass door slide silently open. This is Elms House, home of LEO 2, though no trace remains inside. It’s not even called Elms House now, though the new owners did find a plaque in the basement with “Elms House” on it last time the building was gutted and refurbished. Stand outside with your back to the building and you are looking over what was once the vast sprawling complex called Cadby Hall, home of the Lyons Food Empire. Now it’s a mixture of high-rise modern buildings and the only clue to its illustrious park is a short road called “Lyons Walk”, about half way between Elms House and the Kensington Olympia.
Frank Land, in front of Elms House (now EMI Records) in 2001
     
 
(3) Keep walking to the Olympia building. That is where two of Lyons’ great achievements in exhibitions and mass catering were achieved: in 1891 it was “Venice in London”, an extraordinary creation that included 50 genuine Venetian gondolas complete with gondoliers. Many years later, in 1925, Lyons put on a massive banquet for 7,250 freemasons, sitting down at one and a half miles of tables. The flowers alone took 14 hours to arrange.
           
(4) Get back onto public transport and make your way to the Bayswater Road and the huge Whiteleys shopping centre, once the country’s first and biggest department store. In the Fifties there were upper floors with offices to rent, so when the LEO team outgrew Elms House and Lyons wanted to create a more separate identity for LEO Computers anyway, they made the same trip you’ve just done. They moved into part of the upper storey and named it “Hartree House” in honour of Professor Douglas Hartree whose early work on Differential Analysers and enthusiastic support for a British computing effort was so important to the development of EDSAC and hence LEO.
           

Sadly that is all there is to see of LEO or its first two homes.

However Geoff Cooper has emailed me to say "try 24 Minerva Rd in the Park Royal factory area. Development and production of Leo II and LEO III took place there until LEO and its successor English Electric Computers were absorbed into ICL to make ICT in 1969. I worked there after leaving school" More info soon
           
last modified 21 Jan 07