A computer pioneer

I have posted before about how the history of commercial computing is intimately linked with the British tea-shop, via LEO, a successful line of commercial computers developed by the Lyons tea-shop chain.  The first business application run on a Lyons computer was almost 60 years ago, in 1951.  Today’s Grauniad carries an obituary for John Aris (1934-2010), who had worked for LEO on the first stage of an illustrious career in commercial IT.  His career included a period as Chief Systems Engineer with British computer firm ICL (later part of Fujitsu).  Aris’ university education was in Classics, and he provides another example to show that the matherati represent a cast of mind, and not merely a collection of people educated in mathematics.

John’s career in computing began in 1958 when he was recruited to the Leo (Lyons Electronic Office) computer team by J Lyons, then the major food business in the UK, and initiators of the notion that the future of computers lay in their use as a business tool. At the time, the prevailing view was that work with computers required a trained mathematician. The Leo management thought otherwise and recruited using an aptitude test. John, an Oxford classics graduate, passed with flying colours, noting that “the great advantage of studying classics is that it does not fit you for anything specific”. “

Of course, LEO was not the first time that cafes had led to new information industries, as we noted here in a post about the intellectual and commercial consequences of the rise of coffee houses in Europe from the mid-17th century.  The new industries the first time round were newspapers, insurance, and fine art auctions (and through them, painting as a commercial activity aimed at non-aristocrat collectors); the new intellectual discipline was the formal modeling of uncertainty (then aka probability theory).

UPDATE (2012-05-22):  The Telegraph of 2011-11-10 ran an article about the Lyons Tea Shop computer business, here, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the LEO (1951-11-17).

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