David Caminer: an appreciation
A more incongruous sight would be hard to imagine, particularly in 1951. There, at the heart of a vast catering commercial empire devoted to serving tea and cakes, was a pulsing sci-fi monster with almost endless rows of 6,000 glass tubes filled with nearly half a ton of mercury.
The monster’s name was LEO. It was the world’s first business computer and its master, David Caminer, who has died recently at the age of 93, was one of the great pioneers of commercial computing.
Sixty years ago, nobody would have seen anything like LEO as the development of electronic computers in the late 1940s and early 1950s was largely carried out by a small number of mathematicians and engineers.
Official secrecy meant that the public knew nothing of the spectacular progress made by British scientists in developing the code-breaking digital computer, Colossus, which helped win the second world war.
Civilian computers simply did not exist and though the Manchester Mark 1 Manchester Automated Digital Machine or MADM) at the city’s university and Cambridge University’s EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) were used to calculate accurate mathematical tables or analyse data relating to protein structures there was no software to run commercial applications.
David Caminer was the intrepid, determined genius who invented the first business programmes.
What made his achievements as the world’s first commercial systems analyst so remarkable was that he started from scratch.
At the time he was the systems manager for Joseph Lyons and Company, then Britain’s biggest caterer famed for its tea houses. It employed 30,000 people, serving 150m meals a year. With suppliers, transport, orders and 36 miles of its Swiss roll consumed daily, the administration had become colossal.
Lyons, was the meeting place of the chattering, hat-pinned English housewife – a hub of refained voices and pursed lips. Scurrying between close-set tables with silver trays and serviettes taking orders for the tea and buns were the ‘nippies’ – women in pseudo-Victoirian black and white uniforms with caps and smiles. They were national treasures, having replaced the Gladys, the nickname for the company’s waitresses in the 19th century. But the ‘nippies’ had a problem, as they worked in Joseph Lyons’s tea shops and cafes. Every order required a hand-written bill. Progress against inefficiency had to be made.
Thanks to John Simmons, the financial controller of Lyons who’d realised as early as 1947 that the development of so-called ‘electronic brains’ in the US, notably EDVAC (the Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) held the possibility of being used as a efficient business application, the company took the extraordinary step of donating $5000 (close to $100,000 in today’s money) towards the modification of EDSAC by Maurice Wilkes and his team at Cambridge in return for access to the technology.
Caminer was the key member of a team of bright young technologists responsible for bringing to life the vision of the Lyons board and by 1949 a small electronics workshop had been set up at the Lyons head office in Hammersmith, West London.
“It is comforting to
be freed from
while history is
being made, but
it is more than likely
that they will catch
up with you sooner
The result of all this was LEO, the Lyons Electronic Office, which ran a programme for the first time in September 1951 and under Caminer’s tutelage, the Lyons team developed systems and ways of working that were groundbreaking for the time and are still relevant today.
Caminer was given overall responsibility for systems and programming development while his colleague John Pinkerton was responsible for the hardware side.
And possibly if the rules for systems development laid down by Caminer had been taken to heart by succeeding generations, fewer computing disasters would have tarnished the image of the IT industry.
Caminer programmed LEO to take over routine office tasks and do them in a fraction of the time taken by clerks.
Where it had taken eight minutes to calculate an employee’s pay, LEO could do it in 1.5 seconds. LEO was programmed to handle the daily deliveries from Lyons bakery to 200 retail outlets, to organise restocking, to calculate the overnight production requirements, such as how many miles of Swiss roll had to be made and even to work out delivery routes for vans.
Later, Caminer ran programmes that could detect patterns in the till receipts and pinpoint when the company’s restaurants were busiest and which of its chocolate cakes and iced fancies were selling best. Today, businesses analyse such information as a matter of course but in the 1950s this marked a retail revolution.
Soon other major companies such as Dunlop, Ford and Imperial Tobacco were coming to look at LEO and learn from it. Lyons set up a subsidiary to make computers and 80 LEOs were sold to countries around the world including the US, South Africa and Czechslovakia.
Caminer, by all accounts a charming man with exquisite manners and a delightful sense of humour, had a short fuse where programming standards were concerned. More than one of his colleagues had work literally thrown back for failing to meet his expectations. Yet Caminer himself had had no training in computing – hardly surprising because the subject was so new that everybody involved in LEO learned on the job. What was unusual was that Caminer was not even a mathematician and had no formal academic qualifications.
Born David Tresman in 1915, he was the son of a Lithuanian tailor. His father died fighting in the Second Battle of Marne in 1918, it what began as the last major German offensive of the First World War and marked the turning of the tide for the Allies.
When his mother married again, he adopted his stepfather’s name. Raised initially in London’s East End, he later went to the Sloane School in Chelsea but by his own admission he was not a natural student.
He was more engaged by unemployment and the rise of right-wing dictatorships in mainland Europe. He spent his youth pamphleteering and, as he put it, ‘generally fostering the revolution”‘ He marched against Oswald Mosley, the anti-Semitic British fascist leader. Having failed to get into Cambridge – he said later that ‘university seemed an irrelevance in the days of mass unemployment and hunger marches He attended Sloane School in Fulham but was involved in left-wing politics and chose not to go to university.
When he eventually decided that he needed a job his mother asked a neighbour who worked at Lyons if there was a place for her son, and Caminer joined as a management trainee in 1936 at the age of 21.
On the outbreak of the second world war, Caminer served with the Green Howards Regiment. He served at El Alamein, where he recalled the ‘wondrous sight of a desert fox crossing the shimmering sands at first light on the morning of the battle’.
In March 1943 he was injured at the Battle of Mareth in the Tunisian desert and lost a leg.
He returned to Lyons in 1944, working for John Simmons, and where he soon became head of the systems research office, applying the new disciplines of organisation and methods to the company’s operations on a salary of Â£5.05 a week
It was then that he became involved in LEO eventually became part of what was then the British computer champion, International Computers Limited – ICL – and Caminer was appointed head of market development.
He was asked to take charge of software for ICL’s New Range 2900 series, its flagship through the latter part of the last century. He specified the ICL operating system VME/B, a brilliant concept that was in some ways too advanced for the machines on which it was expected to run.
Caminer completed his career by implementing the European Union’s computer and communications network in Luxembourg.
He always believed that small, close-knit teams of the sort that worked on LEO were the ideal: ‘These days the spirit has changed, he wrote just before his death. ‘Computer staff have become nothing but nine to five workers. Teams are so large I’m surprised they ever get anything done.’
The final system was enormous, occupying as it did more than 5,000 sq ft in 21 racks, using approximately 6,000 thermionic valves and was first used to cost the bread, cakes and pies produced at 12 Lyons bakeries. It ran successfully on November 17, 1951, and weekly thereafter, the first scheduled business computer system. It was a great British success story.
In December 1953 Caminer supervised the world’s first full-scale business computer program when LEO produced pay cheques for 1,670 bakery staff. The average time to work out one person’s wage was cut from about eight minutes to 1.5 seconds, a clear demonstration of the potential efficiency gains possible with even the earliest computers.
The success of the LEO prompted Lyons to spin off the computing side of the business as a separate company, LEO Computers. The company built a new and improved version of LEO, the LEO II, and in 1959 Caminer joined the board as head of marketing, although he still retained responsibility for systems implementation.
Growing pressure from US companies, including IBM, prompted consolidation in the fledgeling British computer industry during the 1960s, with LEO Computers merging with English Electric in 1963.
The merged company acquired Marconi’s computing division in 1964 to form English Electric LEO Marconi Computers, later simplified to English Electric Computers and then, following a merger with ICT, to International Computers Ltd or ICL.
In a speech marking the 50th anniversary of LEO he said that there were still important lessons that today’s business could learn from the project and lamented that sad fact that the UK had become a second-class nation in IT, a follower rather than a leader.
“Sound finance in new technology is crucial. Leo had a ‘sugar daddy’ in the Lyons bakers and tea shop chain but as the scale of operations grew, it simply could not compete with the US giants like IBM. The money was not available and new business practices were mostly frowned on.”
“It is comforting to be freed from financial worries while history is being made, but it is more than likely that they will catch up with you sooner or later – a good many dot coms found that out.”
Caminer stayed with ICL throughout its many changes, and was involved in the complex process of designing a unified range of mainframe computer systems for the merged organisation. His final big project was as project director for the development of a computer and communications network for the European Commission, and in 1980 he was appointed OBE for “services to British commercial interests in Luxembourg”.
He retired from ICL in 1980 but remained active in the industry as a consultant and writer. During his retirement he established a reputation as the foremost historian of the LEO computer, and in 1998 he published LEO: The Incredible Story of the World’s First Business Computer.
He given an honorary doctorate by Middlesex University in 2006 in recognition of his contribution to business computing. He was profoundly respected as a pioneer of business computing.
David Caminer, computing innovator; born June 26, 1915, died June 19, 2008. He is survived by his wife Jackie Lewis who he married in 1945 and their son and two daughters.