July 1, 2008

Pioneer of the First Business Computer

David Caminer, who has died aged 92, started his working life as an employee of a legendary chain of tea shops but went on to pioneer the earliest ways to use a computer for business and industry.

His death was announced by the Leo Computers Society, whose purpose is to keep alive the memory of LEO, the computer Mr Caminer helped develop for J Lyons & Co. It was the world's first business computer as certified by Guinness World Records.

Lyons was the first company to computerise its commercial operations, partly because it had so many. It had more than 200 teahouses in London and its suburbs, with each Lyons Corner House daily generating thousands of paper receipts and needing scores of fresh-baked items.

The company also catered for large events such as tennis at Wimbledon and garden parties at Windsor Castle and operated hotels, laundries, and ice-cream, sweet and meat-pie companies. It also had business interests in large tea plantations.

To manage and organise such a large operation, it needed particularly efficient office support and turned to exploring ways of using "electronic brains" that scientists in the United States were developing.

Mr Caminer's role was finding ways to retain traditional clerical rigor while speeding up the company's logistics and finances many times over.

The result was LEO, its name derived from Lyons Electronic Office. The Economist magazine called it "the first dedicated business machine to operate on the stored program principle, meaning that it could be quickly reconfigured to perform different tasks by loading a new program."

LEO performed its first calculation on November 17, 1951, running a program to evaluate costs, prices and margins of that week's baked output. At that moment, Lyons was years ahead of IBM and the other companies that eventually overtook it.

The fact this was pioneered by a food conglomerate impressed many in industry. New Scientist said in 2001: "In today's terms it would be like hearing that Pizza Hut had developed a new generation of microprocessor or McDonald's had invented the Internet."

David Treisman was born on June 26, 1915, in the East End of London. His father was killed in the First World War. His mother married Felix Caminer and the young David took his name. He joined Lyons as a management trainee in 1936. During the Second World War, he lost a leg in combat in Tunisia but later returned to Lyons before soon becoming manager of the systems analysis office.

Lyons sent employees to the United States to study office automation, and US experts said they should go to Cambridge University, where Maurice Wilkes was developing an early computer.

Lyons made a deal to help finance Wilkes' work in return for his help in building a computer for the company. As work on the hardware progressed, Mr Caminer drew up a flow chart to show how the different job requirements related. The charts became the basis of the computer code.

Mr Caminer has been called the first corporate electronic systems analyst.

The finished LEO, which had less than 100,000th the power of a current PC, could calculate an employee's pay in 1.5 seconds, a job that took an experienced clerk eight minutes. Its success led Lyons to set up a computer subsidiary that later developed two more generations of LEO, the last with transistors, rather than the noisy vacuum tubes used in the first two models.

LEOs were sold to Ford Motors, tobacco companies, a steel maker, South Africa, Australia, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, among others. The Lyons computer operation merged into a succession of companies, which chose to use US technology, not least for its universality.

Many have compared LEO's experience with that of the de Havilland Comet, which was the first commercial passenger jet in production but which lost out to Boeing jets.

Mr Caminer, who was awarded the OBE in 1980 for developing a computer system for the European Common Market, had many explanations for the failure of Lyons to press its advantage. One was that it had no idea how rapidly technology would advance.

He is survived by his wife, Jackie, a son and two daughters.

(c) 2008 Western Morning News, The Plymouth (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.