Finding Ada in Lyon’s tea shops

24 March 2009

As part of Ada Lovelace Day, I’ve signed up to the pledge “I will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire”, so here it is…

…actually I am going to cheat, ever so slightly, as my post is going to be about many women, not one woman. This post is about the women of the the J. Lyon’s company.

Lyon’s Tea Shops were the Starbucks of their day – one of the first national chains of teahouses, with over 200 nationwide at their peak, with uniform pricing, food and drinks. 150 million meals were sold a year, and that meant a huge overhead in processing receipts, orders and stock distribution. Enter LEO, the Lyons Electronic Office, the first computer specifically designed for business applications.

Part of LEO’s responsibilities was to manage each tea shop’s daily orders – time-sensitive (food went off quicker in those days), high-volume (thousands of meals a day) and sensitive to fluctuations such as weather or local events. As a result, the work was never-ending, involved a mountain of paperwork and prone to mismatching needs (if a shop over-ordered one day, it would typically under-order the next, thus going empty too early in the afternoon).

By computerising the tea shops, LEO was not just a triumph of engineering but of user-focused design; the system’s programmers toured the country’s tea shops, which were usually not only staffed but also managed by women. They would talk to the manageresses and area supervisors about their daily work, the problems they faced, and how they could design the system to help. The result was a system designed not just from the top down but the bottom-up, one that fit the needs of its users. Forms were designed to be as easy to fill in as possible. Orders were telephoned in to a dedicated professional computer operator (also usually female). And data was sent back to manageresses about their shop’s performance allowing them to make informed decisions.

Among them was Jean Cook, [...] area supervisor for five teashops in the City of London. ‘To me it looked like a row of kitchen cabinets,’ she says. Soon though, like other manageresses, she was converted to the advantages of working with the computer. Today she comments that later in her career, when she had moved to another company and computers were far more advanced, she was never provided with the quality of information she had been able to extract from LEO.

The result was that far from being technophobic or hostile to the newfangled computer and its new ways, the manageresses embraced it – after a little initial apprehension:

Ethel Bridson, who had only recently been promoted from manageress to assistant area manager, was apprehensive when she heard that her London shops were the first to be computerised. ‘I’ve stepped into trouble!’ was her first thought. But she was pleased to find that ‘her’ manageresses made the transition easily, and she appreciated the computer’s advantages. ‘We got everything we wanted in a much shorter time,’ she says. Soon the daily reports filed by manageresses to their supervisors began to include paeans of praise to LEO. ‘This is a great timesaver, work saver, and we are grateful for it,’ wrote the Wembley manageress.

By the way, did I mention the year? This all happened in 1954. Yes, 1954.

It could be levelled that despite the co-operation from the manageresses and their hand in shaping the technology, the LEO’s construction and programming was still a male-only affair. Even this is not true – one of the programmers on the LEO team was Mary Blood (later Mary Coombs), who worked on the LEO and its successors throughout the 1950s.

Mary Blood did not come from a mathematical Cambridge background like many of her colleagues – she studied modern languages but was accepted onto Lyon’s programming team after passing the internal computer course. She eventually became one of the team leaders on the project, staying with LEO Computers until Lyon’s sold off its computer division in 1964.

By any standard, women did not play a predominant role within LEO’s development, yet they still played an essential one, by breaking down the barriers and convincing Lyon’s mostly-male management – whether they were programmers like Mary Blood or tea shop supervisors like Ethel Bridson, and many more besides. While it may not look much today, it stood in marked contrast to the typical gender politics of the time. Over a half a century ago, it was one of the first progressive (if now little-remembered) projects involving women in technology, and a lesson to us all today.

Notes & References: Most of this account of LEO is sourced from Georgina Ferry’s excellent A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the World’s First Office Computer. The quotes above are from p. 127 of the paperback edition. There’s also a Radio 4 documentary on it and a dedicated webpage to its history.


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