John Pinkerton and the First Business Computer

John Pinkerton and the First Business Computer

In the 21st century, computing is ever-present in both personal and business life.

It wasn’t always so. In fact, it was an Old Cliftonian, John Pinkerton, who designed the world’s first ever business computer and set about revolutionising the corporate world.

John Pinkerton’s early days

Pinkerton was born in St. Pancras, London, in August 1919, but grew up in the West Country and was educated in Bath and later boarded at Clifton College. 

Both of his parents worked in medicine and it was their intention that he should follow them into their profession, but Pinkerton preferred the bright lights and bleeps of technology. He was obsessed with his father’s self-built crystal radio set and created his own radio receiver when he was just 11 so that he could hear the sounds coming over the radio waves. 

Indeed, when Pinkerton got accepted into Trinity College Cambridge to read Natural Sciences, his studies often were neglected as he favoured impressing friends with ever-more sophisticated radio sets. He became a keen member of the University Wireless Society and even tried to become a wireless transmitter at university but failed a Morse Code exam. 

Pinkerton graduated from Cambridge with first-class honours in 1939 and as the Second World War broke out he joined the Air Ministry Research Establishment where he worked on radar techniques with Maurice Wilkes, a man who would also go on to be a computing pioneer and be a key character in the Old Cliftonian’s life. 

Maurice Wilkes, J. Lyons and EDSAC

EDSAC - Courtesy of University of Cambridge under CC BY 2.0

After the war, Pinkerton returned to Cambridge to become a researcher in ultrasonic experiments at the Cavendish Laboratory. It was only here that Pinkerton started to become interested in computers – Wilkes was also at Cambridge leading the team behind the second-ever digital computer, EDSAC (above) – and his ultrasonic studies were starting to inform what would become some of Pinkerton’s later computing techniques.  

Then Pinkerton started a new, exciting chapter in his life when he was approached by the catering firm J. Lyons.  While the company was known predominantly for its tea and cakes, its innovative supply chain technology behind the scenes was a key factor in its success. So, after two of its managers visited America and witnessed the world’s first personal computer, they were convinced that a machine of their own could help them get a jump on their competition. 

Lyons executives spoke to Wilkes about his EDSAC project and provided him with £3,000 to help finish his computer. And once the machine had been completed, Lyons wanted to use the technology for a business equivalent of its own. Wilkes agreed, and stated that there was only one engineer who was fit for building a business equivalent of his machine: his good friend Pinkerton. 

Building LEO

Leo1a Small

So Pinkerton joined Lyons and set about building the machine that would become LEO. His approach was to change as little as possible from EDSAC’s design in order to minimise risk, and he later said that “since we didn’t understand very well why it was designed, we didn’t make very many changes at all.” 

However, this self-deprecation is typical of Pinkerton’s modest nature and belies the fact that the Old Cliftonian updated the technology in a number of critical ways – chiefly by increasing its reliability. LEO had to be constantly functional with no significant breakdowns and Pinkerton introduced a number of innovations that would become industry practice in later years. Chiefly, the concept of ‘marginal testing’ was introduced to ‘push’ individual components further than before in order to guarantee mass performance over a set period.   

LEO was launched in November 1951, just two years after Pinkerton joined Lyons. It had 6,000 valves and handled a number of data streams with multiple input and output buffers – while its memory size of 8¾ kilobytes may seem minute in today’s terms, it was four times larger than EDSAC. Lyons used the LEO machine to undertake payroll services for a number of companies including Ford UK and the Met Office.

Thanks to Pinkerton, Lyons became big news in the business world and even the Queen visited to see its technology.

Derek Hemy, who worked under Pinkerton at J. Lyons, said that he was “a man with whom it was very difficult, if not impossible, to fall out” and also noted the Old Cliftonian’s “quiet, dry humour” when dealing with the unknown quantities of computer engineering. Remembering Pinkerton, Hemy said:

“In particular, I remember a meeting chaired by John's director in Lyons to review progress and to try to solve some recent problems. The director ended the meeting by stating that he wanted to avoid unexpected problems in future and told John to give him a detailed note of them! 

"After a pause, as we all tried to envisage such a note defining the unknown, John remarked, 'Surely you are asking me to make a list of all the towns in China that I do not know'- a statement to which there was no possible reply.”

Pinkerton’s later years

But as computers continued to take off in the 1960s, Lyons struggled to invest necessary amounts of money to compete with American businesses and sold its technology arm to English Electric (later International Computers Limited). Pinkerton was immediately appointed as head of computer research and continued in management positions at the company.

Yet when Pinkerton retired in 1984, there was a sense that his talent wasn’t utilised to its potential. Maurice Wilkes bemoaned International Computers for not giving “full scope for his abilities”. Nevertheless, he maintained a busy professional life after retirement, lecturing at universities, editing a number of scientific books and journals, and becoming a member of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists.

When he died in December 1997, Pinkerton received a number of plaudits from experts and leading lights across the IT industry, not least from his friend Maurice Wilkes. It’s clear that without this innovative Old Cliftonian, business life in Britain would have been very different.

Read more Clifton Memories:

Clifton Memories – Francis Younghusband: The Last Great British Explorer 
Clifton Memories – AEJ Collins’ Record-Breaking Cricket Score

If you'd like to learn more about Clifton College, or book an open day, you can do so here.

Images courtesy of Leo

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