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Cambridge museum nets £100k to preserve and promote computing history


By Adrian Curtis


Computers have come along way since they were first rolled out in the 1940s. LEO became the first electronic computer in the world to run a routine office job
Computers have come along way since they were first rolled out in the 1940s. LEO became the first electronic computer in the world to run a routine office job

The digital office has its origins in the 1940s

The LEO computer
The LEO computer

The digital office is nothing new – the technology may have moved on and been made a whole lot smaller, but the concept has been around since the 1940s.

If business computers had family trees, they would flow back to LEO – the Lyons Electronic Office – which was created about 75 years ago to help run the country’s largest caterer, J Lyons & Co.

The importance of LEO is such that the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded a Cambridge museum £101,000 for its project, Swiss Rolls, Tea and the Electronic Office: A History of LEO, the First Business Computer. And that money is just for the first phase, the grant to the Centre for Computing History and the LEO Computers Society could end up at £265,000.

The project aims to bring together, preserve, archive and digitise a range of LEO computers, artefacts, documents and personal memories to share the fascinating, yet largely unknown, story of LEO.

John Simmons, who helped build a copy of a machine created at Cambridge University
John Simmons, who helped build a copy of a machine created at Cambridge University

Ian Williamson, chair of the board of trustees at the centre off Coldham’s Road, welcomed the award from the Lottery Fund, along with Peter Byford, chair of the LEO Computers Society

In a statement they said: “This is a wonderful opportunity to ensure that records of such an important period in social and computing history are preserved, and the partnership looks forward to unlocking the stories within this unique archive”.

The LEO was formed in the 1940s when Lyons & Co agreed to invest in the computer developments being made at the University of Cambridge. LEO went on to revolutionise how businesses were run and is now acknowledged as the world’s first business computer.

The funding will allow volunteers, trained and managed by three part-time staff, to learn practical heritage skills to preserve and digitise LEO material and explore its relevance for today.

It will also provide the public with freely available digital archives, learning resources, events and a film, while they also explore the recreation of the first LEO machine using cutting-edge virtual reality technology.



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