John Humphries House and the LEO 3 computer
By Harry Pearman
John Humphries House in Stockwell Street was the first purpose-built computer centre in Greenwich and the site of a remarkable initiative by local government.
An early UK computer with an electronic stored memory was the EDSAC machine developed at Cambridge University in 1949. I caught the attention of J. Lyons & Co., who were the managers of a highly successful teashop chain. They were also innovators of management systems and found that the paperwork of stock control in all of their branches greatly inhibited efficiency. Lyons therefore set about building the first UK computer for business use. It was dubbed the LEO 1 machine; LEO standing for Lyons Electronic Office. It utilised mercury delay lines for memory storage, and ran the world's first regular office job for stock control in 1951. An offshoot company, LEO Computers Ltd., was formed in 1954 to market the technology and LE02 machines were installed in many British offices, including Ford Motor Company, British Oxygen Company and the Ministry of Pensions at Newcastle.
This success led to the invention of the LEO3 machine. This machine used panels of magnetic washers to store programs and data. Memory size was limited, and programmers had to show great ingenuity in the direct manipulation of memory in order to contain data. Files were stored on magnetic tape reels and data was entered by completing batches of forms, which were punched onto paper tape. Programs were written in a wholly numeric language called Intercede, and the primitive operating system required a great deal of operator intervention. LEO'S principal benefit was the ability to print forms and tabulations at speeds of up to 1,000 lines a minute.
In 1960 these innovations caught the attention of a Greenwich Councillor named John Humphries. He was instrumental in the creation of a Joint Committee formed from the then Metropolitan Boroughs of Greenwich, Woolwich, Deptford, Southwark, Bermondsey and Camberwell, and this in turn set about the creation of a computer centre, with the result that John Humphries house was built and officially opened. The development of systems was placed in the hands of the Metropolitan Boroughs Organisation & Methods Committee, another Joint Organisation serving the needs of 28 Metropolitan Boroughs and managed by John Dive.
They created a computer division and it was based at John Humphries The first application was Rate Accounting and this was followed by Payroll, General Ledger Accounting, Job Costing, Stock Control, Creditor Payments, Miscellaneous Debtors, Transport, Housing Rents, Electoral Registration, Library Cataloguing and Land Use Registration. Subsequently The Forest and Bexley Hospitals and the Bloodstock Agency also used the services of the site.
A major change took place in 1965 when London Government was re-organised and the centre then serviced the data processing needs of the London Boroughs of Bexley, Greenwich and Southwark. As computing developed it became financially viable for each local authority to create its own computer installation. The need for a joint installation ceased and the use of John Humphries House was discontinued.
LEO Computers Ltd merged with the computer interests of English Electric in 1963 to form English Electric LEO, and later, English Electric Leo Marconi (EELM). Subsequent mergers eventually found LEO incorporated into SCL in 1968. And the ICL machine range took over new production.
This article appeared in the May 2002 GIHS Newsletter