Payroll: where it started. And the first product demo.


 LEO the first business computer.


Regular readers of this blog, my academic research, or dinner party victims may well be aware of my fascination with the early history of payroll. If not, you will be now.

This post will take you to the dawn of enterprise software. While the history of the software industry makes for an interesting hobby, it also helps inform how I think about the software industry today. The past serves as a useful, if sometimes cracked, looking glass. So here goes.

In future posts I will look at where payroll software could be heading.  

Going back in time

Payroll was the earliest significant business application. Lyons Tea Room was a very successful retail hospitality business; consider it to be the Starbucks of its time.

In 1951, Lyons Tea Room kicked off a project to build the first business computer, Lyons Electronic Office (LEO), and by 1954, it was running the payroll for thousands of employees in the company. 

LEO then went on to process the payroll for over 20,000 employees at Ford’s Dagenham plant a couple of years later, so this was probably the first outsourced computerised payroll. 

One of the first programmers on the LEO was Mary Coombs (nee Blood). Read her obituary here.  The Guardian notes,


The program, written in a simple alphanumeric code, had to produce payslips in pre-decimal currency, taking into account tax deductions, loans to the employee, holiday and sick pay, and calculating the denominations of cash needed to go into pay packets. Coombs later did the same for the Ford motor company, one of many queueing up to use Leo.


Her description of an early bug will bring a smile to any programmer.

I can remember one particularly long evening when it kept going wrong and we were there all evening, because you had to have a programmer involved in this, the engineers couldn’t do it on their own, she recalled. And we eventually discovered that the management lift which went up to the fifth floor where the boardroom etc, was, was interfering. 


Management has been interfering with code ever since. 

Mary was remarkable. 


While researching LEO I came across this document, which is probably the first invitation to a corporate software demo.

letter invite to the first demo

See the original document here.

Thompson, one of the leaders at Lyon, had this to say about the LEO payroll a couple of years after the go-live.


I must not, however, give the impression that to put a payroll onto a computer is an easy matter: it is not. The amount of detail to be considered is very large and the number of exceptional circumstances to be dealt with is beyond belief except by someone who has been concerned with a payroll application.


The methods of keeping the records for time worked and other pay entitlements differ very much from one organisation to another, often for no obvious reason. Ideas differ also on what should appear on an employee's pay slip, and the way the information should appear on the payslip is very much a matter of taste. (Thompson, 1958)


What he wrote in 1958 could have been written this morning.

What is remarkable to me is that the Lyons payroll project took less than three years from conception to go-live. This included figuring out the payroll and time rules, inventing a  programming language, and actually building the computer. 

You can read more about the history of LEO here

Spending a few hours in the LEO archive will give you a discombobulated sense of massive progress and almost no progress at the same time. It’s a paradox that payroll has been relatively stable since 1958, and yet it is always the harbinger of innovation. Whenever I see a payroll pitch, or read about the latest feature enhancements from incumbent vendors, I think back to the early pioneers.

Have a watch of this.


 In the next post, I’ll jump forward 70 years or so, and address what’s ahead for payroll in the context of new work, tax, low code/no code  and business model innovation. In the meantime, if you are building awesome payroll technology, tell me more about it, please.