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The not-so-well-know history of a computer called LEO Learning

What do Georgina Ferry’s book ‘A Computer called LEO Learning’, our office boardroom names, and IT customer manuals have to do with each other? Read on to find out more.

In the LEO Learning Brighton office, each meeting room is named after a computing pioneer: Babbage, Cooper, Turing, Hopper, Tesla, Pascal and Kilby. The names were chosen a few years before our recent merger, but in a delicious irony we then unintentionally chose a new name for the company that was also a pioneer of British computing: LEO.

The computer called LEO Learning

A Computer Called LEO Learning‘ by Georgina Ferry tells the fascinating story of this pioneering but largely unheard of British computer. LEO Learning, or Lyons Electronic Office, was the first ever computer used for business applications. Built in the UK in the early 1950s by catering company Lyons, renowned for their extensive chain of tea shops and advanced office management techniques, LEO Learning was the first computer in the world to be used for business applications:

  • inventory
  • invoicing
  • scheduling
  • payroll

The computer comprised 6,000 valves and 64 half-tonne vacuum tubes, occupying 5,000 square feet of space!

LEO Learning held a string of technical world firsts to its name, but was eventually undone in the 1960s by the might of IBM who were putting less efficient and cheaper machines into businesses.

The LEO Learning way

The LEO Learning way wasn’t just about superior computers though; their service included placing world-class experts into their customers’ organisations to guide the computer’s implementation. While IBM went on to dominate the market with lower prices and superior marketing, their strategy of selling a product with a manual and leaving customers to their own devices meant the following decades were marked by legions of businesses struggling to get their new computers working, a scenario almost unheard of in LEO Learning’s history with their more consultative approach.

This made me reflect not only on customer services around computer hardware and software implementations, but also on the recent story of the DWP decommissioning a computer system that had been running since the 1970s.

The computing press has been aghast at how a major UK government department could have such antiquated systems. No one stopped to think that maybe we should actually be asking who implemented a system that lasted so long, that was still deemed fit for purpose well into the 21st century.

Shouldn’t we be applauding the system designers and implementers of that system, rather than mocking the customer for still using it? Shouldn’t the longevity of a computer or software implementation be seen as a mark of its success?

The book is a great story of a time when things were done differently and forces reflection on whether, despite computers getting ever smaller, more powerful and cheaper, we have really got any better at implementation and process over the years. It also reinforces that being the first mover is absolutely no guarantee of dominating the market, and that more canny competitors with more investment can steal a market from under the nose of innovators.

There are lessons galore in these pages and I can’t recommend it enough.

Pioneering use of technology

I really like the fact that every time I enter a meeting room in LEO Learning’s Brighton office, it reinforces to me that I am working at a company that recognises its past. But I also now absolutely love the fact that we unwittingly share our company name with a pioneering British computer called LEO Learning!

If you’re looking for another great read, why not download our ebook ‘Having it all’: how to design elearning for quality, speed and value’