The LEOmatic office - an enigma

18th June 2020

We recently digitised a LEO report from 1958 with an interesting name - but as historians it has left us with more questions than answers!

It was a report on the 'LEOmatic office' for a light engineering company called CAV but we hadn't heard of any LEO computer referred to in that way before. So what was the LEOmatic office?

One of the many great things about the LEO project for us is our partnership with the LEO Computers Society. Digitising and interpreting the LEO story, with help from the LEO experts who are members of the Society, is truly a privilege. Few museum professionals get to work on an archive with the very people who not only created that archive, but who were involved in the very dawn of their specialist subject. In this instance, we knew we had former LEO employees and users on hand to answer our questions around the unheard of LEOmatic office.

But it didn't quite work out that way. It turned out that not a single person (so far) remembers anything called the LEOmatic office...

Professor Frank Land remembers the CAV report from 1958, and commented "I had not seen that proposal to CAV since it was issued, and I don’t remember the use of the name LEOmatic Office.  But CAV had been one of the earliest LEO customers using LEO I and later LEO II as a bureau for technical calculations.  As I remember it they had two programmers, Fred Bishop and Eric Kavanagh.  By the time LEO II became available for sale CAV were interested in acquiring one for themselves. One of their top executives, Wilkinson, had great ideas of using computers to transform the CAV business and he started the negotiations that led to the comprehensive sales document. But it was not till later that it led to the sale of a LEO III... I had some involvement with CAV, possibly even with the LEO II proposal, and the sale of a LEO III to them.".

Not to be deterred, Prof. Land then located references to CAV in David Caminer et al's book, User-Driven Innovation (and its US counterpart LEO: The Incredible Story of the World's First Business Computer) which prompted his memory of doing CAV's payroll as a service job and which also referred to Fred Bishop.

In the meantime, ex-LEO employee John Daines also had no memory of the LEOmatic name but recounted his own memories of CAV and LEO: "We did E56, the CAV payroll [job] on the LEO II/5 bureau.  E56D was the daily payroll program (3.5 – 4 inches thick) and I think it’s the one I dropped on my first day when I thought I’d reach down and take it out of the card reader, prompting shouts of 'who’s that...'. Big payroll and for more than one location. There were also some occasional runs of technical heat transfer calculations that were referred to as “bubbles up a spout” by Bill Steele, the ops manager.  Lots of noisy processing but very little I/O [input or output].  I think John Parker may have programmed them - reference to CAV mathematicians in the proposal.  The programmers for payroll were Kate Keen, now Fisher (ex Leo I data prep with Eve Manley and Gloria Guy and subsequently in training at Radley House in Ealing) and John Coyle."

John went on to say that "The proposal must have been quite early because it talks about the customer recruiting engineers and having them trained. This happened with the early machines but ... because there was no career path for the engineers, LEO took over and most? of the engineers joined LEO. Interestingly, the costs for training engineers are marked [in the report] to be omitted for Kodak.".

The 'bubbles up a spout' job mentioned by John relates to CAV's work on the design and performance of oil pumps, which were tested by the number and location of air bubbles inside the pump (the more bubbles, the lower the efficiency). LEO was used to solve a number of second-order differential equations for the job, according to Leo Fantl's recollections in User-Driven Innovation.

CAV programmer Barry Hooper also offered insights, stating "I never heard the name LEOmatic at CAV but then us programmers were never told anything....CAV's first computer job was the payroll system on the LEO II. The programming was managed by LEO personnel and a couple of us from CAV did some programming too. This would have been, for me, about April 1960 and the work was done at Hartree House. Enjoyed that.
Following the success of the LEO II payroll system I suspect the CAV management decided on the purchase of the LEO III... I did my first aptitude test in November 1959 and was finally accepted as a programmer at CAV for the LEO II in March 1960 and was "interviewed" by a Mr Webb. The word "interview" is in quotes because I had the job prior to the interview. Very short interview it was. Seemed like a lovely set up by LEO to me!"

But back to the point of this blog post. The phrase 'LEOmatic office' was clearly not a particularly important one in LEO's history, and we are no further forward in understanding why the phrase was used in this particular report, but in delving into its past with the people who were there at the time, we did manage to uncover some fascinating anecdotes illuminating the work done by the LEO machines and the people who worked on them!

Posted by: Lisa McGerty




Photograph of The LEOmatic office - an enigma Click for a larger version


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