Leo Computer reunion 2010

The chairman of the Leo Computer Society, Peter Byford, invited me to attend the Leo computer reunion this year. Normally these events are for people who have worked on a Leo computer, but as the last of the Leos was decommissioned in 1981 when I was still a school girl overseas, I didn’t qualify. However, on the strength of my mother’s time as a Leo 111 programmer, and also that Peter and several others remembered her, I (and my husband as guest) was given this opportunity, and what an interesting day it has proved to be.

The event was held in the Park Inn Hotel, near Russell Square in London. We had an easy drive from home and parked right outside the hotel (no parking restrictions in Southampton Row on a Sunday). The first people I spoke to in the reunion did not remember my mother, they had worked at different times or in different locations from her Hartree House office. However John Hume and Gloria Guy had interesting recollections of the Leo. There was a small exhibition of articles and items related to the Leo – it was fascinating looking through the little booklet that was issued to every Leo employee when they started working for the company and reading through the 4 week training programme that they were given to familiarise them with the Leo operations. The attention to detail was amazing.

Peter Byford welcomed everyone and introduced the guest speaker, Daniel Hayton of the Computer Conservation Society who spoke about some of the work of the society. Frank and Ralph Land, the twin brothers who had been involved with the Leo from 1952 spoke for a short period about the foundation of the Leo, then Mike Hally, who had created the BBC radio 4 programme ‘Electronic Brains’ in 2002 spoke about that radio programme and his book which was available at the reunion at a special reduced price. A whole episode was about the Leo computer. Peter Byford then announced that if anyone remembered Wendy Forward, her daughter was at the reunion and would be pleased to meet them.

There was a buffet lunch, and during that time we showed the photo slide show of my mother to a few people, some of whom had known her, others who hadn’t but were kind enough to show interest in my story of researching her association with the world’s first business computer. We had good conversations with Bob Melling and Daniel Hayton. Bob Stevenson, the society’s webmaster, introduced himself as having known my mother, because she brought her programming to him to run through the computer for testing. He had been a shift leader, then Operations manager of the Bureau Leo 111 / 1 at Hartree House during the same period that mum had worked there. He pointed out a group, mostly women, who he said had definitely worked with my mother, so we approached them with the laptop and showed them the photos of mum. They all recognised her immediately and gave me the news that for some of them she had been their team leader programming code for Wedd Durlacher Mordaunt, a stock exchange company that purchased Leo 111 / 45 for business operations. This machine was delivered to the company in 1966, which was when my mother finished her Leo work. At the age of 24 she was leading a team of young programmers fresh from school, and had seemed very experienced in their eyes. They described her as tough enough to cope with London living, hard working (and expecting everyone else to work hard too – so no surprise there then – this was the ethos I grew up with!) but also happy to have fun. In fact this was the message I got about many people’s memories of Hartree House – they enjoyed working there, were willing to put in (often long) hours to get some programming right (and were paid appropriately) but also had fun socialising and playing practical jokes on colleagues. We heard some funny stories of pranks from Alan Hooker (Jnr) and Peter Byford.

I was asked a couple of times today why I was so interested in the Leo and my mother’s role, and I explained that I hadn’t known much about her London life (she had talked a lot about her subsequent travels and we had enjoyed the slide shows of that when we were young, but she took no photos of the Leo). Also, I have regular contact with modern programmers as part of my job at the Open University, where computers are put to many complex uses for the purpose of education and I find it fascinating to learn more about the early computer pioneers.

Putting the slide show of mum together last night was time consuming but worthwhile – I will always regret that my mother died so young and that when she died I was only just starting to know and show an interest as her as a person, beyond her mother role, who had been to University and worked before her marriage. I do not remember her saying the computer was a Leo, it was just a big computer that filled a large room. I think her recollections had been triggered by seeing a new Apple Mac personal computer at a friend’s house and wishing she could justify buying one, and when I showed an interest in her past she had told me a little. My research 3 years ago had given me something tangible, but finally meeting her colleagues and discussing with them what the work of a Leo programmer involved has been a tremendous thing to do – I can recognise similarities in her attitude to work that have come through in me and which I had not understood so well until now. She has been dead for 26 years, but revisiting her past, and looking at the photos of our joint memories (my childhood) has brought her closer to me again. I would like to thank all her Leo colleagues who were so friendly and kind today for their part in making this quest so special.

The photos I took are shown in this post, for the ‘official’ photos of the event, see http://www.leo-computers.org.uk/parkinnphotos.htm