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The remarkable stories of four computer pioneers.

Monday to Friday 3.45-4.00pm 30 September to 3 October 2002

A series of 4 programmes which tells the stories of some of the computer pioneers in Britain, America and the Ukraine. Each is a little cameo of social history of the early postwar years half a century ago, from a time when "everything you did was new, no-one had ever done it before".

Electronic Brains

Fifty years ago the great catering company J Lyons, best known for its Teashops and Corner Houses, ran the world's first real business computer program, calculating the value of its bakery sales. Astonishingly Lyons had also developed and built the computer itself, and it gave it the playful name of "LEO" - short for Lyons Electronic Office. Across the Atlantic, two rival teams were developing their own business computers, shortly to become famous as the "Univacs", the name that came to mean "computer" in 50's America. One group worked in an old barn, overlooked by an ancient stuffed moose. Meanwhile in an abandoned monastery on the edge of war-torn Kiev, another group worked night and day to build the Soviet Union's first computer. And while all these electronic marvels were taking shape, a genius at the London School of Economics was turning his engineering skills to economics to create the world's first and only hydraulic computer. It used coloured water in plastic tubes to model the national economy, and it worked so well they even sold one to the Central Bank of Guatemala.

Programme 1 - LEO the Lyons Computer

The first programme starts in the Piccadilly café which is still identifiable as the first Lyons Teashop ever opened, at the end of the 19th Century. It moves on to Hammersmith where a Lyons historian describes how the great Cadby Hall factory complex needed an army of clerks to run it. LEO veterans explain how the company that believed it could do anything decided to build a business computer, and did so with considerable success. A former Teashops manageress recalls what a difference it made to her work when all the daily orders were computerised. And one of the telephonists who typed her orders into LEO remembers the excitement of "feeding this marvellous machine". It was so successful that Lyons did jobs for other companies and the government, like working out the new tax tables on the night of the Chancellor's Budget. It also calculated the distance between every one of British Rail's 5000 stations and every other one. But the name died in the 60s, beaten by the perception that a catering company couldn't build computers, and the disorganisation of Britain's computer industry.

Listen again to Programme 1 Listen again to Programme 1

Programme 2 - Saluting the Moose

This programme joins a group of retired engineers who meet every Fall in Connecticut to re-discover the forgotten history of the first American business computer. They worked for Remington Rand, in a converted barn that still "smelled of horses" and had a stuffed moose's head overlooking them as they worked. Best known for its mechanical calculators before the war, the move into computers was fiercely opposed by senior executives - few people in those days thought businesses would ever need computers. But by 1949 they had more orders for the first model, the Rand-409, than they could cope with. Meantime two brilliant engineers, but hopeless businessmen, were building their own machine over a clothes shop in Philadelphia. The widow of one of them, mathematician Kathleen Mauchly, had the job title of "computer" during World War II, when with dozens of other human computers she calculated ballistics tables for the armed forces. She recalls the trials and the successes of her husband's machine which was bought up by Rand when they ran out of money. Renamed the "Univac" it burst into public consciousness by correctly predicting a landslide victory for Eisenhower in the 1952 Presidential Election, beating all the human pundits - the computer operator on duty that night takes us behind the scenes.

Listen again to Programme 2 Listen again to Programme 2

Programme 3 - Then we took the roof off

The Ukrainian city of Kyiv (Kiev) was over-run by the Nazis in World War 2, liberated by the Soviet Army a couple off years later, and by 1945 was in a terrible state. But while re-building started a small group of scientists and engineers found an abandoned monastery in an idyllic setting on the outskirts of the city, in a place called Feofania. There they built "secret laboratory number 1" and started work on the Soviet Union's first electronic computer. This was no copycat - few details of western projects were in the public domain. Instead under the inspirational leadership of Sergei Lebedev they built a computer that generated so much heat they knocked walls down and took the roof off to try and keep it cool. You couldn't just buy a printer in those days, so they cannibalised cash registers and turned them into printers. It ran a sample program for the anniversary of the Revolution in 1950 and on Xmas Eve 1951 it started full-time operations. On location in Kyiv and Feofania, the surviving members of the original team and the leading historian of Soviet computers tell this remarkable story. And they talk about their despair at a political decision in 1967 to copy IBM computers instead of keep faith with their own designs.

Listen again to Programme 3 Listen again to Programme 3

Programme 4 - Water on the Brain

Shortly after World War II, a New Zealand engineer started a sociology degree at the London School of Economics. Bill Phillips had already shown remarkable courage and ingenuity, winning an award for bravery in the Far East, then making electrical gadgets as a prisoner of war. He designed simple immersion heaters for his fellow POWs' nightly cups of tea; the guards never worked out why the camp lights dimmed around 10 o'clock. He made a simple radio (he'd have been executed if caught) and heard news of the bombing of Hiroshima. At the LSE he didn't take to sociology but economics fascinated him. He wrote an essay comparing the national economy to a machine pumping coloured water round clear plastic tubes. An older student persuaded him to build one, and it was an immediate success. More than a dozen were made eventually, with Ford buying one and another going to the Central Bank of Guatemala. Within a few years he was a professor and became one of the giants among post-war economists. He died young, but friends and colleagues recall this remarkable man. One "Phillips Machine" is still working at Cambridge University, where leading economist Brian Henry, who helped restore it, recalls seeing this "ingenious teaching device" for the first time. Although he had already studied economics for 3 years, that was the first time he actually understood what the "circular flow of money" was all about, because he could see it.

Listen again to Programme 4 Listen again to Programme 4
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