Sadly Ernest Kaye, the last surviving member of the original design team of four that built LEO, the world’s first business computer, has died aged 89.
At only 27 years old, Kaye was working at GEC Research when he applied for an anonymous job ad for electronic engineers. That job turned out to be the design and creation of LEO, Lyons Electronic Office.
If you depend on electronic payroll systems today or use computing in business, chances are you should thank Ernest and the other members of the LEO team that you get paid on time (mostly) and via automation.
You might not make the connection straight away, but when Kaye joined Lyons in 1949, he applied his experience in circuit and electro-mechanical relay technology learnt from homing torpedoes to the development of the LEO. Proof as ever that military technologies filter down into everyday lives.
Dr John Pinkerton, Ernest Lenaerts and David Caminer were his colleagues in the original design team that took the basic EDSAC machine developed at Cambridge University. They adapted it to run a whole range of business applications, propelling Lyons into computer manufacturing and sales, where for a decade or more it led the field, beating IBM.
Kaye stayed with the LEO project through several mergers, but then joined a large American company, Control Data Corporation, first as marketing manager and then as service manager in the UK. He still attended many reunions of the LEO Computers Society and had intended to come to the reunion held the day after he died.
In 1970 he left the world of computers to run the family props hire business, Lewis & Kaye, which his father, an antique silver dealer, had started. Lewis & Kaye provided props for television, films, advertisers including Upstairs Downstairs and Harry Potter. He ran the business for over 30 years, not retiring until 2004.
I had the pleasure of meeting Ernest last year for an interview at his home. He was a charming, witty and welcoming man with a sharp mind filled with a vast amount of knowledge and experience. I was surprised to find that he is also an accomplished musician.
You can see an informal performance of Kaye’s String Quartet in F Major in this video.
One of his first songs, a setting of Shakespeare’s Come Away Death written when he was only 17, was published by Oxford University Press, who went on to publish sets of his piano pieces for children. In the early 1950s he supplemented his income by giving piano lessons and composing music for jingles and children’s television programmes for the newly formed ITV channel.
Kaye’s advice to me that day was that ‘one should change jobs every 30 years or so’. I think he’s right and it certainly proved to work well for him being successful in each change he made to his career. The creative side of his personality no doubt informed his exceptional designs for computing.
Ernest Kaye was born in London in 1922, son of Dinah (née Hoffman) and Simon Kamenetzky, who had both emigrated as children from Eastern Europe at the time of the pogroms in 1905. In 1947 he married Marianne Zeisl. He is survived by Marianne, his three children and six grandchildren.
Take a look at the video below and imagine what it was to design computing that had barely been explored. As a forefather of business computing and a gentleman of great humour, Ernest Kaye will be missed.