Happy Birthday, Business Computing

September 5, 2011

On this date sixty years ago, September 5 1951, the world's first business computing program was first tested on the world's first business computer, the Lyons Electronic Office (link).

LEO was inspired by wartime computers that calculated things like artillery aiming tables for the military.  Lyons was a massive restaurant chain in the UK, and realized that the new digital computers could simplify its human-driven accounting operations.  So it built its own computer, consisting of 21 racks with 6,000 vacuum tubes and occupying about 5,000 square feet.  The company's first use of LEO was to calculate the cost of all the baked goods produced by its 12 bakeries (link).

From that humble beginning...wait, that wasn't a humble beginning at all, it was a very cool beginning.  The first use of a business computer was to solve a real-world problem faster and more accurately than people could do it on their own.  That's exactly what you're supposed to do with computers.  LEO was quickly adapted to other tasks, where it achieved impressive results.  For example, it cut the time needed to calculate an employee paycheck from eight minutes to 1.5 seconds.

It's hard to believe that many people believed for years that computers didn't increase business productivity (link).

From that very auspicious start grew most of the computing industry we know today (link).  So take a moment to contemplate that dinner roll or slice of pie you eat today, and say a quiet thank-you to David Caminer, John Pinkerton (link), and the other pioneers who got it all started sixty years ago today.

More about Lyons
More about LEO


Manuel Simoni said...

That the paycheck computation was faster is cool. But was it also cheaper?

I'm saying this because I recently read a quote by Peter Drucker:

"Few companies that installed computers to reduce the employment of clerks have realized their expectations.... They now need more, and more expensive clerks even though they call them "operators" or "programmers.""

Anonymous said...

LEO reminds me of the computer depicted in the 1960s movie "Hot Millions" (with Peter Ustinov).