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University of Melbourne computer pioneer Jurij Semkiw honoured with gold medal

Friday, 11 Oct 2013

Presented by the Chancellor Ms Elizabeth Alexander, AM, University of Melbourne computer pioneer Jurij Semkiw was honoured on Monday 7th October with a Gold Medal. An award recognising an individuals exceptional contribution and service to the University and industry.

Jurij Semkiw was born in the Ukraine in 1929. Displaced from their home by the Second World War, his family travelled across Europe, first to Germany where Jurij matriculated at Bayreuth, and ultimately arrived in Melbourne in 1949. They were sent to Bonegilla migrant hostel, where Jurij was sent to work in the bush as a timber worker.

He later moved to Melbourne, where he studied electronics at RMIT and worked with the Department of the Army and the Department of Civil Aviation, building, testing and maintaining communication equipment.

In August 1955, Dr Frank Hirst recruited him as a founding member of the, then new, Computation Laboratory at The University of Melbourne.

Jurij was to assist with the task of reassembling and commissioning Australia’s first (and at that time only) computer - the CSIR Mk1 - later renamed CSIRAC. In the university’s Computation Laboratory George worked with Ron Bowles, the senior maintenance engineer. Together they maintained and developed what was, at the date of its re-commissioning, the largest electronic machine in Australia.

During his time in the Computation Laboratory, Jurij also designed and constructed some of the earliest xerographic photocopying equipment in Australia which was far in advance of alternative contemporary methods of duplicating documents. He also designed and built early transistor-based circuits which enabled the disk store of CSIRAC to be doubled in capacity.

George was the person who dismantled and labelled the CSIRAC hardware when it was decommissioned and sent to the Applied Science Museum in 1964.

From 1964 George participated in the operation of the main university computer (an IBM 7044), but more importantly he worked with academic staff of the Computer Science Department to design and implement a wide range of computer-related hardware projects. Some of these extended the capability of the department’s research and teaching systems, others were research projects in their own right, leading to publications.

Some of these were:

  • An innovative controller to connect a minicomputer to mainframe disk drives. This controller used new synchronisation techniques which were conceived by George and was the subject of a subsequent publication .
  • Several experimental vector graphics systems which pushed the limits of current technology.
  • A sophisticated digitally controlled model train system, used to teach control theory to students.
  • A novel system to emulate 3D display of images by detecting the observer’s head position by ultrasonics and providing an augmented movement of the observed image as the observer moved their head.
  • Equipment which was used in the computer music project conducted by Barry Conyngham and Dr Rex Harris
  • Numerous communication interfaces and data exchange systems, designed to interconnect computers from a wide range of manufacturers, including early Ethernet systems and a major inter-processor switch system.
  • Personal monitoring equipment to enable gathering of data from people engaged in studies of the economics of Australian households.
  • A fibre-optic based security system, for which the university sought patent protection.
  • Hardware development of a computer system (called the Unison) which was later marketed commercially
  • George also developed the hardware for the Multigate network bridge product system which was devised by George and Robert Elz and other staff, and then licensed to a local computer manufacturer and sold locally and overseas. (US purchasers included Apple Computer for use in their corporate offices) generating substantial royalties for the university.

So George moved from vacuum tubes to modern processor chips, mastering each successive generation of technology.

During most of this period he was the senior technical staff person in the department, George, the most modest of men, respected and admired by all, led the outstanding team of technical staff who, among other achievements, pioneered the introduction and operation of internet and email systems for Australia and our Pacific neighbours .

Jurij retired in 1994 after almost 40 years full-time employment in the departments which evolved from the original Computation Laboratory. However, he has maintained his association with the department.

Since 1996 he has been a major participant in the project to record the history of computing and of the department. With Ron Bowles (now deceased), and John Spencer and staff of Museum Victoria, George was a crucial participant in the successful efforts to reconstitute CSIRAC, now recognised as the oldest intact stored-program computer in the world, for permanent display in the Melbourne Museum.

He also played a major role in the successful project to re-create the music of CSIRAC, now recognised to be the world’s first computer generated music .

George still attends the CIS department each week where he has developed, and is maintaining, a database of the historic items and documents which forms the departmental heritage collection. His association with and contribution to the department has now continued unbroken for almost 60 years.

Outside the university Jurij Semkiw is a highly regarded member and leader of the Ukrainian community in Melbourne. He is married to Marta and has two sons and two granddaughters.

Jurij was also a founding member of the Victorian Computer Society established by Professor Cherry, Trevor Pearcey, Frank Hirst and others, which evolved to become the Victorian Branch of the Australian Computer Society – the recognized national professional organisation in the IT sector.

It is appropriate that Jurij Semkiw, a pioneer of Australian computing who exhibited the adaptability and ingenuity of a great engineer as he embraced wave after wave of technological change and thus generated products and income which benefitted the University of Melbourne, should be honoured with an award by the institution he has served for almost 60 years.

J Semkiw profile
Above: Jurij Semkiw - 1969.

Jurij Semkiw
Above: Jurij Semkiw at Operating Console - 1964.