CSIRAC, Australia’s first computer

It’s hard to believe that only less than 80 years ago, computers were the size of a room. And now, we essentially carry about devices with exponentially more power than the first computers, in the palm of our hands or in our pockets.

Technology has come a long way in a very short amount of time. There are few examples of what once was but Australia’s first computer, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Automatic Computer (CSIRAC) is a fascinating example.

It is the world’s longest surviving first-generation computer, and fourth computer ever built in the world.

Hello world: CSIRAC

When it was built in 1949, CSIRAC was at the cutting-edge of computing. At half the size of a shipping container, it was Australia’s first stored-memory computer.

The project to build the CSIR Mark 1 computer (later renamed CSIRAC) started in the late 1940s at CSIR Radiophysics in Sydney. The concept was the brainchild of Trevor Pearcey, and the electronics from the work of Maston Beard.

Apart from being incredibly large, in comparison to today’s modern computers, the 2,500 kilogram computer was also much slower and weaker in computing power. CSIRAC’s processing speed was 500 to 1000 hertz, compared to an average 2018 laptop with 2.4 billion hertz. The memory capacity of CSIRAC was a barely comprehensible 2000 bytes, compared to about 16.5 billion bytes today.

But despite that seemingly lack of power, in 1951 during a public demonstration, it was the first computer in the world to play electronic music.

In 1955, and still the only computer in Australia, it was trucked from Sydney to the University of Melbourne where it was set up in the newly established Computation Laboratory and formally re-launched (and re-named) in 1956.

CSIRAC was hugely popular, with people often waiting weeks to gain access. Over eight years, it was sought after for science and industry.

It operated for approximately 30,000 hours spread out over 700 projects. Apart from electronic music, it was also used to make weather forecasts, calculate mortgages, and even play some of the first computer games.

In 1964, CSIRAC was dismantled and put into storage at the Applied Science Institute, a forerunner of Museums Victoria. It resurfaced briefly in 1980, but returned to storage yet again. The computer has been on public display since 2000.

“CSIRAC is one of the most significant objects in Museum Victoria’s collection of over 17 million items and has an important role to play in highlighting both the history and current state of computer technology, in Australia and internationally,” said acting general manager of Scienceworks, in the Melbourne suburb of Spotswood, where it will be permanently displayed in it’s new place in the Think Ahead exhibition.

Inspiring Australian electronics enthusiasts

It’s hoped that the new home at Scienceworks will inspire future generations and highlight the role the computer has played in Australia’s information and communications technology (ICT).

“A team of computing pioneers and volunteers has worked for decades to ensure that the history of CSIRAC is fully documented,” said Peter Thorne, Pearcey Foundation member and former head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Melbourne.

Since its inception, it has been a source of inspiration. During the early 60s, Thorne was a weekend service engineer for CSIRAC whilst he was undertaking his physics degree.  

But that was not his first encounter with CSIRAC. During a high school visit to the university in 1957, he saw it, and as an electronics enthusiast and a radio hobbyist, he was immediately interested.

Whille studying his undergraduate degree, he was able to use the machine to do some calculations for his physics practical experiments.

Getting the weekend job took a bit of patience. In the end he was in the right place at the right time – he was an electronics enthusiast who was studying physics in the same building.

“My fiancé was a technical assistant in the Computation Laboratory, so I hung around until the Officer in Charge Dr Frank Hirst offered me the job,” he says.

His junior role was mostly to ensure CSIRAC was ready for the weekend users. His contribution was to start up and test it, advising people who had booked to use it, whether it was working or not.

The team from csiro division of building research with csirac computer: (l-r) roy muncey, bill davern, terry holden. 1958.
The team from CSIRO Division of Building Research with CSIRAC computer: (l-r) Roy Muncey, Bill Davern, Terry Holden. 1958.
Museums Victoria

By the time he was working on the enormous contraption, CSIRAC was already 10 years old and no longer the most advanced computer in the world. It’s hard to imagine working on a 10-year-old computer today, but in the early days, advances weren’t so quick.

“Nevertheless, the Computation Laboratory was an exciting place to be,” he recalls.

When talking about what he wished people knew more about regarding Australia’s contributions to computing, Peter says: “Australia was there at the very beginning of the digital age. After the CSIR Mark 1/CSIRAC, further innovative computers were designed here.

“From that early start, we have always been at the forefront of software development. In the rush of evolution of the field, our local contributions and capabilities are frequently overlooked.

“Bodies such as the Pearcey Foundation (named after the initiator of the CSIR Mark 1/CSIRAC project) and the Australian Computer Society, are working with museums, universities and industry bodies to increase public awareness of our past achievements and to emphasise the importance to the future of Australia of maintaining.”

CSIRAC is on display now at Scienceworks, in the Think Ahead exhibition.

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