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The ACS Heritage Project: Chapter 3

Thursday, 08 Dec 2016


How an interception at Sydney Airport changed the course of computing in Australia.

Preamble: The Australian Computer Society 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.

Previously published: 

Chapter 1: The start of Australia’s computing history

Chapter 2: The first Australian Computer Conference

Chapter 3: Harry Messel and the birth of SILLIAC

In 1952, a dynamic 29-year old physicist named Harry Messel was appointed to new chair of physics at the University of Sydney. He was to hold the position until 1987.

It nearly didn’t happen. The son of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada, Messel had come to Australia in 1951 to teach at the University of Adelaide. He made his mark very quickly, establishing a reputation as a brilliant theoretician and a tireless and vocal advocate for science and technology. He resigned after a strong disagreement, which almost became a physical fight, with Vice-Chancellor Albert Rowe over the role of physics at the University.

Flying back to Canada, he was intercepted at Sydney Airport and offered the job of resuscitating the University of Sydney’s moribund Physics Department. He set out a range of conditions, which he did not believe would be accepted, but which were.

He wanted an increase in staff from 7 to 21 and funding for cosmic ray research as a path into nuclear physics. In recommending him, University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Sir Stephen Roberts told the University Senate that “while the tribulations of the administration will probably be added to by this dynamic personality, the Department of Physics will gain increasing international reputation.”

So it was to be. Messel’s first act was to recruit prominent physicists from around the world, including John Blatt from the University of Illinois. It was to be an important decision for the future of Australian computing.

Click HERE to read the full article.