back to article Blighty's revolutionary Cold War teashop computer - and Nigella Lawson

The Victorian offices were bulldozed long ago for a stack of flats and mirrored offices, and there's not a single indication to the significance of this site - or what happened here. This isn't the scene of a lost battle, and the bones of a missing Plantagenet king do not slumber beneath the car park serving the offices. …


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  1. Stevie


    "electron valves???"

    Do you mean thermionic valves or have a couple of pages of some 1930s pulp magazines gotten mixed in with your notes old boy?

    I worked with someone who reportedly cut his digital teeth on one of these things. I often thought it explained what a miserable git he had become by the time we had the fabulous high-tech ICL 1901T.

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Er...

      "Do you mean thermionic valves?"

      Ah, the pedantry is strong in this one. Perhaps too much, though. There is no doubt that there is a flow of electrons from the filament, modulated by the grid(s) between the cathode and the anode. I used "electron valve" for anyone unfamiliar with the technology, to make it clear we're talking about controlling electric current rather than fluid or something else associated with valves.

      To keep old-timers happy, I'll change it. I just fear you may have spilled your coffee over your yellowed pages of Practical Electronics magazine.


      1. Anonymous Custard

        Re: Er...

        I'd also wonder about calling the programs that the things ran "apps". Given how hard-wired they were (literally for the early ones), even programs may be stretching it a bit I guess.

        Really enjoying this series of articles though, although using a terms that's only been around for a few years in relation to a machine of this vintage caused some serious mental gear-grinding.

      2. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

        Re: Er...

        Or Wireless World Perhaps? Lots of Triode and Pentode circuits in them (of a certain age)

        (a long deceased relative of mine was some manager or other at Pinnacle Electronics)

        1. Kubla Cant

          Re: Er...

          I once worked near Westbourne Grove, London, where there was a shop that sold nothing but thermionic valves. As this was in the early 1980s, one couldn't but think their business model had reached the end of the line. Shortly afterwards, the shop was destroyed by fire. I suppose this might have been caused by overheating valves, but then again...

  2. frank ly

    re. Minerva Road, Acton

    In the mid '80s, Minerva Road in Acton was the location of an old established electronics company who's name I've forgotten. I know this because I went for an interview there. Also, in Acton, there was an outpost of Ferranti, before they imploded. Does anyone else remember this? (I hope so, otherwise I'm having false memory syndrome.)

  3. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge


    Literally, a telephone network main distribution frame, I would reckon.

    This reminds me that I have the book on Leo somewhere under my "to read when your miserable pension vests and you are living in a loghouse while taxfeeders and cronies laugh at you" stack of stuff.

    1. gerryg


      "A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the world's first office computer" available from the usual online sources

      1. phuzz Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: DAT MAINFRAME!

        Although the book doesn't cover any of the interesting stuff about Blue Steel or selling to the soviets, so I enjoyed this article as well.

  4. Evil Auditor Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    @Gavin re Nigella Lawson

    Is there another reason to refer to Nigella than to draw readers to the article? Not that I think this would be wrong, bien au contraire!

    1. Callam McMillan

      Re: @Gavin re Nigella Lawson

      Read the article. Her Great Grandfather was a managing director of the company!

      1. Anonymous Custard

        Re: @Gavin re Nigella Lawson

        And her father indirectly (ish) helped kill it off, as the article also says. Although there a somewhat more nasty way of things coming full circle than just looking at the lovely lady.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: @Gavin re Nigella Lawson

      Well that's why I read it.

    3. Ross K

      Re: @Gavin re Nigella Lawson

      Mmm, Nigella...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: @Gavin re Nigella Lawson

        @Ross K

        well worth waiting through 5 seconds of an advert for Chrome for.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: @Gavin re Nigella Lawson

      Ah, dear Nigella.

      So good to see her line of wealthy industrialist forebears, former chancellor of the exchequer father, private oxbridge education, series of media savvy spouses and willingness to act like an embarrassingly randy old aunt on camera, haven't stopped her fighting her way to the top.

  5. Neil Barnes Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    When I was a wee sprat

    My father worked for Joe Lyons, though not in any technical capacity. When I was ten or so - around 1970 - he brought home a circuit board that he had been told was part of a Leo.

    Turned out to be a counter/display board from an Anita calculator, but the thought was nice!

    1. Steve the Cynic

      Re: When I was a wee sprat

      "he brought home a circuit board that he had been told was part of a Leo."

      In the late 70s, my parents' house gained the *best* loft flooring. A group of late-model LEO IIIs was being decommissioned, and the aluminium honeycomb panels from the sides of the racks made their way up into our loft. They were strong enough to walk on, but light as anything.

      Then again, my mother worked at Lyons as a programmer in the early 60s...

  6. disgruntled yank Silver badge

    technology exports

    Didn't Djikstra say that it was clear the US had won the Cold War when the USSR started using the IBM 360 architecture?

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Big Brother

      Re: technology exports

      More on the Collectivist Techno FAIL at

      Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley and Joel Barr.

      That was another architecture than the 360 though.

  7. Stevie


    "Reading tape from the LEO II/I computer in London, 1957 (Photo: Science Museum / SSPL)"

    An obvious forgery. The man in the background is clearly Jason Bourne, which places this vignette sometime in the early 2000s.

  8. hammarbtyp
    Thumb Up

    Yank's rewriting history again

    Great article. It will be a great reference when I read another article claiming GE had the first commercial computer such as

    1. hayseed

      Re: Yank's rewriting history again

      That one was ordered, this one was custom-built

  9. Steve Williams

    2/2d for a cup of tea at a Corner House in 1954???

    ...You've got to be joking.

    1. Kubla Cant

      Re: 2/2d for a cup of tea at a Corner House in 1954???

      Definitely - I'd guess less than a shilling.

      And what does "2 shillings and 2 pennies or less than two quid today" mean? 2/2d was less than two quid in 1954, as well.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: 2/2d for a cup of tea at a Corner House in 1954???

        Definitely less. 2/2d is less than 11p (2.4d = 1p, 1s = 5p). Heavens. I remember the fuss when beer went to 2 shillings pint in the mid sixites (before my official drinking time). I seem to remember a cup of tea being around 6d.

        Lyons: school exeats when mother came up to take me out for the weekend and we would got to Lyons Corner House in the Strand or somewhere for tea and cakes. I avoid Starbucks and its USA ilk on principal. I think that lst year they were judged to provide the worst, weakest coffee in the British Isles.

        I've become a grumpy old man, thinking back to when things worked, were affordable and it was fun. I worked for a couple of years in the mid-nineties at ICL Fujitsu in Bracknell. Rather good, well organised and some excellent engineers. It's been down hill in the quality of projects and engineers ever since. We even got major projects in on time and budget. Those were the days. But then, my managers had degrees in statistics or mathematics, knew what a computer looked like and took an active interest in the work and people rather than the budget and promotion for themselves.

  10. Irongut

    "Starbucks, which sweats to ensure its coffee-like beverages taste exactly the same in Leicester Square, London, as Union Square, San Francisco."

    You mean Starbucks actually work to make coffee that tastes that bad?!? They should give up now.

    1. Kubla Cant

      "Starbucks, which sweats to ensure its coffee-like beverages taste exactly the same"

      I presume it's the sweat that gives it its distinctive flavour.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Starbucks Coffee tastes best only when served by sweating Klingons, as originally intended!

  11. Oor Nonny-Muss

    Blue Streak Unsuccessful?

    It was actually the single most successful project of its type that the MoD had ever run - no misfires, no failures. Right up to the part where it was pulled due to American political pressure.

    1. graeme leggett Silver badge

      Re: Blue Streak Unsuccessful?

      And when we went with the American suggestion of Skybolt - they cancelled it.

  12. Don Jefe
    Thumb Up


    This was a really good article! I didn't know the history behind LEO.

    It is astounding to me that a bakery decided to build such a thing. In most modern businesses the bean counters would have collective apoplexy if a bakery decided to venture into say building satellites.

    1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

      Re: Astounding

      In those days, the bean counters did as they were told and added numbers on their counting frames especially in a company with strong leaders who wouldn't think twice about handing you (the bean counter) their P.45 if you made too much noise drinking your Lyon coffee.

      my Mother met my Father in Lyons Corner house.

    2. david 12 Silver badge

      Re: Astounding

      >bean counters would have collective apoplexy

      Yes... and no.

      They weren't building a computer: nobody had heard of such a thing.

      They were building an accounting machine for the accountants.

      And their core business was accounting. They weren't diversifying from their central business model. The shops were run by shop managers, but the business was run by accountants and bookkeepers, and they were trying to make an incremental change in their business process.

      But they weren't that far off from using dip pens and gas lights (they would have been familiar with both from childhood anyway). There had been tremendous changes in society and organisation, far more than I've seen in my 50 years, so I think they probably were more open to change than many people today.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Astounding

        They were building an accounting machine for the accountants.

        Winding on to the late 60s/early 70s a former boss of mine asked the board for a computer and was given a firm "No".

        He then asked for an accounting machine and got the OK for that, but he smuggled in a computer instead.

        He also had the foresight to move to interactive minis when the rest of the group were still running overnight batch jobs on mainframes.

  13. Peter Simpson 1
    Thumb Up

    Really good read!

    Well done. The quality of the first two articles has been outstanding! Keep it up, Reg!

  14. Ramiro


    Excuse my ignorance, but I didn't know acoustic memory was real. I thought Stephenson had made that up. I should have known better, of course.

    On a different note, Nigella is milftastic.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Cryptonomicon

      > acoustic memory

      > milftastic

      I infer a blowjob.

  15. James Pickett

    "Starbucks, which sweats to ensure its coffee-like beverages taste exactly the same"

    I suspect that most of the sweating is to do with making a similar beverage from the cheapest ingredients. Computers can't taste things yet, AFAIK.

    1. hayseed

      If computers could taste..

      When Starbucks bought Coffee Connection, they should have reprogrammed everything so that the Starbucks' **** became like Coffee Connection's, not vice versa.

  16. Tom 7 Silver badge

    If they tried to build it today

    they'd still be arguing about which fonts and colours to use in the design manual.

    I doubt Microsoft are as well organised as Lyons was - until the accountants went wild.

  17. CowardlyLion

    The Case For The First Business Computer

    > Nobody can say whether the LEO lived up to Thompson’s promise to cut expenses or whether

    > it helped Lyons become efficient - I asked Frank and Ralph, and they reckon nobody really knew.

    You would probably be interested in the following paper:

    The Case For The First Business Computer

    Author: Nick Pelling, 26th March 2002, Kingston University Business School, Surrey, UK


    The business cases behind the five proposals made to the board of J.Lyons & Co. by Thompson and Standingford in 1947 - which led to the construction of the first business computer [#1] - are analysed, but found to be strategically lacking. Both an alternate reading of the case and some contemporary implications are then developed.

    1. gruffrey

      Re: The Case For The First Business Computer

      Nick Pelling = Orlando M Pilchard. Firetrack / Frak/ Zalaga ... Genius.

  18. Emeritus

    Thanks for an excellent reminder of the early days of computing. But

    one correction. In the early when LEO was launched on the world I was a

    trainee and junior programmer. The people who led the team to the

    applications and who taught me were the genius of a programmer Derek

    Hemy, Leo Fantl, John Grover and a little later another genius John

    Gosden. But it was David Caminer who had the most prominent and

    effective role on the systems and programming side until the demise of

    LEO. You give me too much credit - there were a number of heroic figures and

    it was a privilege to work with them.

    Frank Land

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