1915 - 2008
David T Caminer: System designer behind LEO, the world's first business computer
Joined J. Lyons & Co. before World War II as a Management Trainee, his career was interrupted by National Service, losing a leg in the battlefields of North Africa, before returning to Lyons and being appointed head of the Systems Research Office, followed by taking a prominent and leading role in the establishment of LEO. Described by John Aris as the inventor of Systems Analysis, his methodological approach was a key factor in the success of LEO.
His ambition, following his retirement was to ensure that the story of LEO would take its proper place in the history of computing. He helped fulfil that ambition by his writing and the establishment of the LEO Foundation.
See also a biographical sketch on page 201 of Peter Bird’s book LEO: the First Business Computer.
In 1947 J. Lyons & Co, the catering firm best known for its chain of teashops, made the extraordinary decision to build a computer. The Lyons computer, called LEO for Lyons Electronic Office, was the world's first computer designed exclusively for business. David Caminer, who had joined Lyons as a management trainee before the Second World War, was made responsible for the deployment of the computer in the Lyons business. In 1953, Lyons was the first company with a computerised payroll, and LEO soon took over the accounting and stock control of the company's 180 teashops. LEO gave Britain a world lead in business computers, albeit short-lived.
As today, many early computer projects went disastrously wrong. Not so at Lyons. Although the technology was radical and innovative, Caminer's approach to the computerisation of business processes was utterly conservative. He assumed that what could go wrong would go wrong. He therefore set out on a learning curve – computerising simple jobs first, and gradually taking on ones that were critical to the business, such as payroll and stock control. Caminer was an early advocate of management by exception, using the computer to bring critical issues to the attention of management.
By 1955 LEO was fully utilised, with Lyons own work and also that of other firms such as Ford and Kodak. Several companies expressed an interest in purchasing a copy of the machine, and this persuaded Lyons to go into the computer-manufacturing business as Leo Computers Limited. Caminer was appointed head of marketing in the new company and was eventually given a seat on the board. He was instrumental in supplying LEO computers for many important projects. These included the Post Office's telephone billing system and Giro, which were for several years the largest computer operations in Europe.
By the late 1950s, however, the American computer giants such as IBM and Univac had entered the British market, and it was clear that Leo Computers did not have the resources to compete in the long term. The firm was sold to English Electric Computers in 1963, and in 1967 English Electric's computer division was itself merged into ICL – the Wilson government's attempt to create a flagship national computer company that could compete with the Americans.
Caminer, and most of his colleagues in Leo Computers, were side-lined somewhat in the merger process. None the less, Caminer found a role as a senior marketer and advisor on large-scale computer applications. His most prominent achievement, in 1980, was implementing the computer and communications infrastructure for the European Economic Community in Luxembourg. This work was recognised with his appointment as OBE for services to the computer industry. He retired shortly after.
He remained deeply interested in the problems of implementing large successful computer systems. Though aware that each generation has to make its own mistakes, he was convinced that there was much to learn from the early developments at Lyons. He wrote articles and edited a book on applications development for LEO, and was a founder of the LEO Computer Society.
David Tresman Caminer, computer applications designer: born London 26 June 1915; OBE 1980; married 1945 Jackie Lewis (one son, two daughters); died London, 19 June 2008.
Obituaries and Tributes to David Caminer appeared in the following places:
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Georgina Ferry)
Financial Times (Alan Cane)
Switched .com (Will Safer)
The Independent (Martin Campbell-Kelly)
Booksellers Association (Martyn Daniels)
The Daily Telegraph. To view this obituary, click on the following link : External Link : Click Here >>>
IT History Society
The Guardian (Frank Land). To view this obituary, click on the following link : External Link : Click Here >>>
BBC Radio 4 ‘Last Word’, broadcast on 4th July 2008
The Jewish Chronicle
Computing (Iain Thomson)
The Richmond and Twickenham Times
The Liverpool Daily Post
Centaurs Rugby Club
The New York Times (Douglas Martin). To view this Obituary, click on the following link : External Link : Click Here >>>
The Atlanta Journal Constitution
The Chronicle Herald, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Computing- Letters to the Editor (R.Sarson)
The Day, Connecticut
Wikipedia. To view this item, click on the following link : External Link : Click Here >>>
The LEO Society website (Frank Land)
The Test Bed- Personal Computer World
Vnunet.com (Iain Thomson, San Francisco)
Fujitsu - ICL pensioners (Frank Land)
Star Tribune, Minneapolis-St Paul
The Eponymous Pickle (Franz Dill)
Funeral piece (Hilary Caminer)
Boing Boing online zine. To view this obituary, click on the following link : External Link : Click Here >>>
David Caminer papers in the LEO Computers Society Archive:
Through his work on LEO, David Caminer amassed a large archive of documents which has now been donated to the LEO Computers Society, and is being digitised and catalogued here at CCH as part of our National Lottery Heritage-Funded LEO project. Work is ongoing, but you can view the current catalogue here:
David Caminer papers (CMLEO/DC)
Books Written by David Caminer :
Articles Written by David Caminer :
Magazine Articles Mentioning David Caminer :
Historical Timeline for David Caminer :