Tea, Tweenies and Leo, the first business computer

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The Independent Online
HOW do you know when a product is mature? When people start cherishing the first examples. The railway had arrived when the Rocket was rebuilt; the car when the London to Brighton run was started.

You may be horrified to learn that the computer has now achieved this status. The Computer Conservation Society is starting on a reconstruction of "Baby", the world's first stored programme computer (supposedly - such claims cause riots in scientific circles). It first ran in 1948 at Manchester University and was later sold by Ferranti as the Mark One. It was 22 feet long, seven feet high, weighed half a ton and was nothing like as powerful as the tiniest machine we have in our office.

Which leads neatly to Leo. Did you know that the first business computer anywhere was (supposedly) built by J Lyons, maker of tea cakes and proprietor of corner shops? I was told this by Frank Land, now visiting professor at the LSE, but once a boffin with Leo Computers, a J Lyons subsidiary. He has helped write a book, User Driven Innovation, which tells how Lyons used to be at the cutting edge of technology. "It was tremendously exciting," he says. "Every single thing we did had never been done before."

Leo was based on Edsiac, another contender for the "first" title, built at Cambridge. It started work in 1949, and was soon earning its pennies. "The teashop manageresses 'phoned in their orders and the computer worked out the production schedules," Professor Land recalls. It was so successful that Leo Computers was formed, and remained one of Britain's leading makers through the Fifties.

Unfortunately J Lyons' business strategy was not as advanced as its data processing. It hung on to its Corner Shops with their Tweenies as Mr Forte came in with altogether more modern ideas and, Professor Land says, "ran rings round them". Tweenies and Leo Computers sadly went the same way - out of business.

THE FIRST winner of a bottle of superior champagne in the Great Bunhill Business Palindrome Challenge is David Lashmar, who runs Beano's ("Britain's largest second-hand music store") in Croydon. He says he overheard this during negotiations for imported containers: "Now stop, major general, are negro jam pots won?" Also, during conversations between the artistic and commercial world: "No it is opposed. Art sees trades opposition." Bunhill's fridge still has the odd bottle left if there are any more ideas (they don't have to be long, just clever).

Don't give an X

WHICH is the beastliest country in the world? Answer: Australia. A chum failed to turn up at Australia House to vote the other day, because she was working somewhere quite other. She will, she tells me mournfully, be fined A$50 (pounds 25) for breaching her country's law. "You only get let off if you're dead or in intensive care," she adds. Boot 'em out of the empire, I say!

ARGYLL prawns are a delicacy in Mediterranean countries. Easdale Seafoods of Balvicar packs them up and sends off to Spain - a nice little earner, you may think. Well yes, but it used to have its problems - the prawns had to be packed with special ice packs, which cost a profit-gnawing pounds 12 for every 3 kilogrammes of crustaceans.

Linda Hill, the boss, was unhappy with this and came up with a wonderful solution. The prawns are now packed in disposable nappies, which are dipped in seawater and frozen. As the ice unfreezes, the water is kept safely inside the nappies - in the same way that they keep other liquids safe. Two supermarket nappies (not even Pampers!) are needed for 3kg of prawns now - total cost 12p.

Ms Hill is, she says, "saving a fortune" - I wonder what the Spanish think when they unpack the prawns at the other end?

Hot off the press

A COUPLE of weeks ago I carried a piece about a small earthquake in Chile, and asked what the headline should be. I wasn't expecting any answers because I thought it had already been written by Claud Cockburn when he was a sub-editor at the Times: "Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead". Cockburn had been challenged to write the most boring headline he could think of, and in doing so subbed his way into journalistic history.

But I got my answers anyway, and many dripped with ingenuity. Several came up with a variation on one theme: "Quake leaves Santiago shaken, not stirred" (from Leslie Davies), while Roger Craske offered "Chile shakes, rattles, and rolls on". I am forced, however, to deplete the grog fridge further to reward Alan Tongue of Cambridge. Would he, I wonder, have got a job on the Times with "Chile con carnage averted as fake quake shakes Santiago"?