Happy 60th Birthday, LEO

According to folklore, in 1943 IBM's chairman Thomas J. Watson said that the world would only ever need five computers. Whether he actually did say this is doubtful, but according to various archives this was the general opinion around that time. And it prompts the question: how many computers actually existed then?

You'd expect, obviously, that it was less than five and that IBM was hoping to sell the other four to some unsuspecting punters who happened to own very large air-conditioned rooms and a power station. But, of course, the first true electronic computers weren't built until a few years later; Colossus at Bletchley Park in England (the Station X computer for decoding encrypted military communications) in 1944, and ENIAC in Pennsylvania USA (used by the US Military for calculating artillery firing tables) in 1946.

Less well known is the first true business computer. Amazingly, IBM's 700 model was narrowly beaten to the title by a group of accountants and electronic engineers hired by the boss of a gentile English tea-shop. Together they created Lyons Electronic Office (LEO), which started work calculating the cost of bread deliveries in late 1951 and then moved on to do the payroll and more.

Much is made of the fact that it had an execution speed of only a twenty thousandth of an iPad, power consumption was 30,000 watts, and it took up about 5,000 square feet of floor space (see Lexikon's History of Computing). Mind you, if an article I read last week is correct two thirds of people who have an iPad use it less than twice a week; and probably don't achieve anything as useful as counting loaves or calculating the optimum ratio of milk and sugar in a cup of tea.

Meanwhile, according to his blog, Oracle's Greg Papadopoulos reckons there actually will be only five computers in the whole world soon. I assume he means that the rest will be just web browsers and smart applications on phones. And probably all written in HTML 5 and JavaScript.

Hmmm, so it's 1997 and "Dynamic HTML" all over again...

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