The Australian Computer Society (ACS) was formed 50 years ago, when the various state computer societies joined forces.
To mark the occasion, the ACS has initiated a heritage project to honour the many individuals who have contributed to the growth of the ICT profession in Australia.
At the heart of the project is a history of computing in Australia. It is not just a history of the ACS, but the history of a profession.
Australia has the longest computing history of any country, excepting the US and the UK, and CSIRAC in the Museum of Victoria is the oldest computer still in existence.
Last week we looked at the beginnings of computing in Sydney’s universities. This week, Melbourne.
University of Melbourne
Computing began at the University of Melbourne in 1956, when a new laboratory was built at the university to house the Mark 1, which had been relocated from CSIRO Radiophysics in Sydney the previous year and renamed CSIRAC.
The new Computation Laboratory in the School of Natural Philosophy Building was a joint venture by the university’s Department of Mathematics (under Tom Cherry, who was later knighted for services to academia) and Department of Physics (under Leslie Martin, also later knighted). For the first year, it was partially funded by CSIRO, which continued to use it.
The Laboratory and CSIRAC’s operations were managed by Fred Hirst, a PhD in Physics who had spent World War II in the RAAF as a navigator. Courses in programming began in early 1956, even before the newly arrived computer was recommissioned. By the late 1950s, such courses were offered as part of the Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree.
CSIRAC was turned on again on 14 June 1956, when Sir Ian Clunies-Ross, Chairman of the CSIRO, certified its indefinite loan to the university. Trevor Pearcey, the man who had designed it, joined the Computation Laboratory in 1959.
When Pearcey arrived, he began courses in numerical methods and computing as part of the BA course in Pure Mathematics. The first undergraduate courses in computer science (called the Theory of Computation) began in the 1960s, initially as part of the BSc degree. These subjects were not offered to first year students until 1970.
CSIRAC remained in service until it was decommissioned on 24 November 1964 when it was replaced by an IBM 7040, a short-lived transistorised machine released in 1963. It was provided by IBM ‘under generous terms’. In 1966-67 the university’s Chemistry Department and Physiology Department installed DEC PDP-8s, as did the Computation Department.
The Computation Department at the university provided both academic teaching and research, and operated the university computing service until 1970 when the University of Melbourne Computer Centre was established under Alan Bell (who had been with the Department of Defence and was later to become Treasurer of the Australian Computer Society).
Besides Hirst and Pearcey, early academic staff in the computing laboratory included Frank Bill Flower (joined September 1961), Rex Harris (February 1962), Alfs Berztiss (January 1964). Engineers were Ron Bowles and Jurij Semkiw, assisted by undergraduate student Peter Thorne.
In 1969, the university split the Computation Department into two – the Computing Centre and the Department of Information Science, in the Faculty of Science. Frank Hirst was invited to take up the foundation chair in computing at the University of Adelaide in 1971, creating vacancies at the top of both units. Bill Flower was appointed as Acting Head of Information Science, the other academic staff being Rex Harris, and Peter Thorne.
Melbourne’s second university was founded in 1958 and is today Australia’s largest. It grew very quickly in the 1960s and opened its computer centre in 1962, when it purchased a Ferranti Sirius computer.
Monash installed a Burroughs B500 in 1963 for administrative work, and a second Sirius, donated from chemical company ICI, was installed in 1964. The university also installed a DEC PDP-8 in 1967.
Monash leapt to the forefront of academic computing in Australia in 1964 when it installed a Control Data 3200 (see Chapter 10), which remained in operation until 1979.
At one stage, there was a proposal to install a network of 3200s in Australia’s universities, and to integrate them with CSIRO’s network, but the cost was prohibitive. Only Monash installed a Control Data machine at that time, though they were later to become popular in academia.
These machines supplied computing services to other Monash departments – the university did not begin offering academic computing courses until 1969, when it established a separate Department of Information Science within the Faculty of Science. The first Professor was Chris Wallace, a brilliant 34-year old PhD graduate from the University of Sydney, where he had studied under John Bennett.
While at the University of Sydney, Wallace had worked with Bennett on one of the world’s first Local Area Networks (LANs), when SILLIAC, the University’s new KDF9, and a CDC 1700 were connected to provide online access to a dozen workstations. A PDP-8, used as a graphics teaching tool, was later added to the network.
Wallace became a well-known computer scientist globally, devising a number of theorems and practical systems. An entire issue of Oxford University’s Computer Journal was devoted to an examination of his work after his death in 2004.
Computer courses at Monash were initially offered only in the third year of an undergraduate degree, but were extended to the second year in 1972 and first year in 1976.
Monash Computer Centre was very successful in its cooperation with the industry, largely through the efforts of its director from 1964 Cliff Bellamy, an entrepreneurial New Zealander who had been a programmer on SILLIAC, also under John Bennett.
After his time in Sydney, Bellamy worked for Ferranti in London, and was instrumental in the company’s success in Australia after he returned in 1962. He became Dean of Monash’s Faculty of Computing and Information Technology in 1990, the year Monash University absorbed the Chisholm Institute of Technology.
Veteran ICT journalist Graeme Philipson is researching and writing the Heritage Project book, which is due for release on the 50th anniversary of the formal incorporation of the ACS, on 3 October 2017.
The project also involves the creation of a ‘virtual museum’, cataloguing hardware and other artefacts, and collecting and curating documents on the history of the industry, including oral histories of as many people as possible.
Please get in touch with Graeme if you would like to contribute, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you have early memories of the ICT industry in Australia? Help us make history by sending us your story! Record or write your memories to be included in our historic ACS Heritage Project. Details here.