A Computer called LEO
There have been enough documentaries covering Station X, Alan Turing and the Enigma code for most people to make a decent stab at some of the details of the birth of the digital computer. But aside from the urgent need to get one up on the Nazis, what were early computers used for? Why were they built? After the war, many universities built their own computers to academic ends. This book covers a story less glamorous than secret codes, and more practical than pursuing mathematical theorems: the development of the first business computer by J Lyons, a company famous for Tea Houses and Restaurants.

It’s the pragmatism of these British pioneers that grabs you — they wanted to make a computer that actually did something. Not something to twiddle its thumbs for the boffins. They wanted a computer that would do the payroll, that would calculate the ingredients needed to bake a thousand cakes and to make enough ice-cream for the summer. They built it from scratch, and they made it more reliable than the academic computers of the time.

That they succeeded so well, when the British computer industry, as we know had now all but failed to compete with the US, is perhaps a familiar story, but one no less worth reading with a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake.

Lessons from LEO
Radio 4 programme on LEO

A computer called LEO is out in hardback right now. It’s too expensive. Wait for the paperback, eh?