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back to article David Caminer, creator of the first business computer

Business without computers would be unthinkable today. Spare a thought then for those who first made the connection; who not only realised that a computer could be used to run a company, but who also knuckled down to build a system from the ground up and put it to use driving a huge commercial enterprise. This pioneering work …

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Jacki will be pleased

David had a bright and incisive mind right up to his passing, and made little of constant discomfort he felt from his artificial limb. He remembered everybody even with a twenty year absents, and was always very welcoming. His wife Jacki still lives in their family home, and will probably be pleased to see we still remember him.

In the annals of Computer Science he probably should be remembered as the inventor of Systems-Analysis.. a worthy ambition for our “profession” would be for all practitioners to be as methodical, thorough and visionary as he was 50 years ago.. within 50 years!

as foot-note, he turned down an undergraduate place at Oxford because he did not see the relevance of a classical education in a rapidly changing world.

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LEO person - website

Hi Stephen,

I would certainly agree with your comments. Have you seen the LEO website - www.leo-computers.org.uk ?

Were you a LEO person- worked on LEO computers in some way,if so you are eligible to become a member of the Society? Maybe you are already a member of the Society if not do make contact .

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Happy

Thanks!

An enjoyable lunchtime read. I'm off for tea and a sticky bun. Cheers!

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::shakes head::

Lauding Caminer, with only a passing reference to Pinkerton? And here I thought this was a techie site, not a manglement site ... I'm appalled, and might have to cancel my subscription.

Yours, & etc.

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were you a LEO person?

How very true about John Pinkerton and others mentioned in Emeritus's response. Were you a LEO man if so are you a member of the Society? If not see the website for details.

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I had the privilege of meeting and talking to John Pinkerton (and hearing his presentation about LEO) during my time at ICL and later Fujitsu. When I met him he was in his 70's/80's but was one of the brightest and most interesting people I've met; you couldn't but imagine just how intelligent he was when he was working on LEO in his 20's. A truly unsung hero of computing.

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Happy

Great article, for those that are interested in hearing more there's a whole book called "A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the world's first office computer" by Georgina Ferry, ISBN: 978-1841151861

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Great book

Although the last chapter is a tragedy as it tells the familiar story of how British high technology companies foundered in the 1960s (our aircraft industry being another example). LEO was forcibly and repeatedly merged with other British computer companies, first becoming English Electric LEO Marconi (EELM) with EE definitely in the driving seat; and eventually, under the guidance of Tony Benn, into the monolithic ICL.

The last LEO 3 machines were retired by the GPO only in 1981. But some ICL mainframes actually emulated LEO in software, so the code might have been run for much longer.

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Fascinating read!

Thanks el Reg!

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Citation Needed - Interesting If True

I read a story / theory somewhere that someone senior in Lyons had worked at and been high up in the War Office and known about Bletchley Park and what was done there and therefore recognised the potential of what might loosely be called computing technology.

The the trip to the U.S. was essentially 'cover' for this i.e. 'I hear these frightfully bright American Johnnies have some ideas that we might be able to put to use', as a way of keeping the secret of Bletchley Park.

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And?

And just who is this very old British company owned by now? Shame.

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IT Angle

I apologise up front because I don't know this man or his work, but shirley you intelligent people should have come up with the fact that biscuit ends with I.T. Excuse the dots in the abbreviation but I started to do Morse Code but I failed the exam - dash it !

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Anonymous Coward

Actually the Univac was delivered before Nov 1951...

...and was clearly designed for business solutions (just look at the early prospectus).

It just so happened that the first customer used it for statistical rather than business purposes.

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Remembering LEO

The point is that November 1951 was the month in which the first time critical business application was rolled out. The computer had been delivered and readied for operational use well before that date.

In this exellent article due credit is given to the role played by David Caminer. But if we are to pay tribute to the innovators who made LEO possible we must note T.R. Thompson, and Oliver Standingford and John Pinkerton. Thompson was Simmon's deputy and he and Oliver Standingford visited the USA in 1947 not to check out computers but to see if there had been any interesting developments in business process engineering (as it is now sometimes called). They came across computers and quickly recognised their potential for solving business proceess problems. Indeed they sketched how a computer could tackle a business application. On their return they produced a prescient report suggesting that Lyons should explore the possibilty of acquiring a computer. The Lyons Board to their credit and prompted by Simmons accepted the report.

Thompson subsequently played a major part in setting up the LEO organisation and became CEO of LEO Computers when this became a subsidary company. He aslo recruited David Caminer to LEO. Standingford left Lyons to run an independent engineering company in Liverpool.

If Thompson and Caminer played the major role in applying the computer to business processes, John Pinkerton the chief engineer was the genius who turned ideas into practical computers designed to handle business applications.

An unsung achievement of the three great pioneers -Thompson, Pinkerton and Caminer is that they built a team which whose achievements at LEO and beyond still resonates.

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Anonymous Coward

Re And?

LEO ultimately became part of ICL which was bought by Fujitsu, while the J Lyons empire was broken up after it became part of Allied Lyons, although the company still exists as a holding company.

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Anonymous Coward

Shame

And the last part of the Lyons business to go was Tetley in 95, then eventually sold to Tata Tea in 2000. Quite sad! Tetley continued the innovations throughout the years such as drawstring tea bags and re-sealable softpacks and evidence of LEO could be seen throughout various parts of the building. It was something we I.T. folk were proud of..and then Tata got a hold of it, and now all they can seem to do is "the needful and revert"!

Just goes to show that the beancounters justification for outsourcing and offshoring has killed innovation in the UK

A worthy article to remember the innovative spirit we used to have.

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LEO and its predecessors

WHO KNEW! First computer memory was liquid....MERCURY omg. Informative, fascinating. TY El Reg. Somebunny should Slashdot this! I would but to busy...wit computer lol...

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Anonymous Coward

Tidyness means nothing.

I was pleased to note, when I had occasion to visit his office, that piles of paper and general untidiness were not an obstacle to brilliance, I tried to follow this example through my career, but didn't quite attain the brilliance bit.

And can I endorse the poster who mentioned John Pinkerton's importance too.

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LEO person?

It sounds as if you were a LEO person, if so are you a member of the Society? If not see the website for details.

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Ah nostalgia...

When I left school in 1968, my first job was as a computer operator on the Leo III at Hartree House. 22 microseconds to read a memory location (this was 3/1 - the first Leo III built, later models had a 13 microsecond read time). Four banks of core memory, 8 tape decks, 2 paper tape readers, 2 card readers, 3 printers, too early for disk storage. Programs were written in Intercode (basically assembler code) or CLEO (Clear Language for Expressing Orders). The system ran 24x7 doing bureau work, payroll runs, etc, for customers. Able to timeshare up to 4 apps at once, memory permitting.

I still remember some of the commands we used to toggle on the console keys, but can't remember what I open the fridge for. Go figure...

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@blodwyn

You open the fridge for beer, silly!

Seriously, your computer work pre-dates mine by about half a decade. But WHAT a half-decade! I'd be decidedly jealous, if I were prone to jealousy over random events such as birth days.

Thank's for the trip down memory lane. This round's on me :-)

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Re: Ah Nostalgia....

Blodwyn, In 1962 (when I started programming at Hartree House - Intercode & CLEO) night-shift engineers used to keep beer on the cool side of the air-conditioning and pies in the warm side. Were they still doing that in 1968?

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Nice article

Well done.

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blodwyn

blodwyn, can you post up the old commands one of my hobbies is computer history and I would seriously like to document them for reference.

Thanks El Reg, you have posted up a quality article here, it's a shame as a nation we have let our crown slip here we could have been the dominant force in the IT industry if we kept going, now most school kids only a few years behind me don't know what basic things like HTML are or basic troubleshooting.

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Leo III Reminiscences to follow...

@jake - It's the beer! Of course - thanks!

@Nights_are_Long - There's some context I'll need to post as well as the commands, so I'll post some of the details I remember in a couple of entries I'll put together over the next couple of hours. Stay tuned......

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Oh why cant my Windows PC do all that now?

All IT students should be made to read "A Computer Called Leo" in their first year.

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Leo III Reminiscences Part 1

Operators Console

The console had a typewriter that the system used to communicate to the operators. It was used for output only, the operators used a bank of switches to issue commands to the system. There were 3 groups of 4 toggle switches, each group representing a hexadecimal (or more precisely an EBCDIC) number, and a spring-loaded 'Stack' switch that you pressed to execute the command entered on the 12 toggle switches. So a command would be something like entering 4-0-2 on the 12 keys, and then press the Stack key to execute it.

Commands

The 4-0-2 command was used to run a program (they were called programs rather than 'apps'). You would load a tape containing the program code on a mag tape deck, load a paper tape with the program name, serial number, and run number into a tape reader, and then execute the command. This would load the program from mag tape and run it.

Strictly speaking, the middle zero in the 4-0-2 command was a 'route' number. Each set of peripherals were on a separate channel, with each device having a rotary switch that you could set to an address 'route' within that channel. The nearest tape reader to the console was usually set to zero, hence the default 4-0-2.

A 1-0-3 command (I think) was used to load a 'Release Tape Index' (RTI). The RTI was a list of mag tape numbers that were OK to write on. Each tape had a serial number, and a corresponding card in a card index. The card was manually updated with details of what data was written on the tape. When the data was no longer needed, the tape was 'released', the tape number punched onto a paper tape in batches of 12 at a time, and then read into the system using the 1-0-3 command. When you loaded a mag tape, the system would read the serial number on the first few blocks, and would check it against the list of tape numbers from the RTI you had loaded. It would not write on a tape without its number being on the RTI.

A 3-0-1 command would do a core-dump to a mag tape. This was later printed (remember there were no monitors back then) and used by programmers to debug errors.

There was also a command for changing the priority of a program compared to other programs that were running, so you could get the best timesharing performance. I can't remember the command number for that though.

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Leo III Reminiscences Part 2

Program Suites

The programs for a particular customer were arranged in a 'suite'. This usually consisted of an input program, a sort, the main processing program, another sort, and then a print.

Input

For a payroll suite, this would contain data like hours worked that week per employee, etc. The input data was punched onto paper tape by a Data-Prep group. This was a team of about 40 (all female, never saw a male DP). Each set of data was actually punched twice. The first time it was punched onto yellow tape, then the yellow tape was fed into a verifying machine while it was punched a second time onto white tape. The verifier would compare what was being punched with what was on the yellow tape, and stop if there was a discrepancy so the DP could fix the discrepancy. These DP girls were amazing - they could carry on full conversations while punching and not miss a beat. As a fresh faced 18 year old, it was quite intimidating walking into the room to collect the paper tapes, and have all the conversations stop so they could check you out.

Sorting

The tapes from the DP group were read and the data written to a mag tape, using the first program in the suite. This mag tape was then used as the input tape to a sort program, that sorted the data into the right order for processing (duh). The standard sort program (07004 if I remember rightly) had an input tape, an output tape, and two work tapes. The data was read from the input tapes onto the work tapes, and then the work tapes were successively read/written and rewound while the data on them was progressively sorted into order. Usually it would take several read/write/rewind passes before the sorted data could be written to the output tape. More intensive sort jobs could be done using program 07006, which used 3 work tapes. Sort programs were what were running when you see the old computers in movies. They were quite impressive to watch, as all the tape decks would be in action, sorting the data between them.

Main Processing

This program read the tape produced by the sort program, and did all the calculations and number crunching on the data. On a typical payroll suite, this would do all the pay and tax calculations for each employee. The calculated data was written to an output tape that was then sorted again by another trip through the 07004 sort program.

Printing

The output tape from the sort was then read by the print program (06060) and printed onto either continuous plain paper, or continuous special stationary (like paychecks). The printers were 120 0r 160 column drum printers. To start with there used to be carbon inserts for 2 or 3 part printing, but later they introduced new-fangled carbonless paper. As operators, we would have to take the boxes of printed paper and 'decollate and burst' them. This involved a complicated an temperamental machine that would feed the continuous paper through, and simultaneously remove the carbon and split the paper where it was perforated into individual pages. I never managed to get away without getting covered in carbon ink from sorting out paper wrecks.

That's probably enough information for anyone to take in one sitting. For anyone still reading - thanks for indulging me :-)

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That should give ...

... the iFad set something to think about^W^Wpretend never existed.

Thanks, blodwyn :-)

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I was a newly enrolled Systems Analyst somewhere at the tail end of the sixties. I worked for Freeman's the catalogue company in Stockwell (London).

I remember one whole enormous floor of girls with machines inputting to cards, and paper tape.

I remember the computer room itself - airlock doors for a controlled environment and no-one allowed to use smelly hair gel (Brylcream etc) or the machines would jam up.

I was well into hash and acid through the weekend, so most work on a Monday got binned and redone next day.

It didn't last long, and I've never had a normal job since, but I have had a lot of serious fun elsewhere...

When I left they were doing the big change from LSD to metric, many giggles about LSD btw, I managed to design one of the agents bits of paper, which they had to fill in all the time, with a subtle mistake in the addition... (SUBVERT!) Got it as far as the printers...

They had just decided not to buy a new (IBM?) computer, but to add another s/h LEO machine to increase capacity.

P.

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@Cyberelic

Ah yes, Freemans used Leo III/26 systems - with a souped-up CPU that had a 2.6 microsecond store cycle time rather than the 13us that regular Leo's had. Heady stuff :-)

Amazing for the time. Not an integrated circuit anywhere, all done with a mix of silicon and germanium transistors.

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Pint

blodyn, Thank you for that I will add it to my collection when I get home. It's nice to know some of the old timers are still around. A Beer for you sir.

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Happy

Thanks. To all you "Proper old timers."

An excellent article, with, as is common on elReg, an even more informative comment stream.

As a relative newcomer (Sinclair ZX80 on, although learnt BASIC at school between '75 and '77), it was a fantastic look into the past. Thanks guys. :o)

I also remember a visit to the Lyons Corner House near Charing Cross as a <10 year old, and being amazed at the "Carvery" lunch, where you could actually go back for <b>seconds!</b>

Happier, and simpler times... Sniff...

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