New book shows how computing started in Australia

Trevor Pearcey and the CSIR Mark 1

Digital computing started in Australia in 1949, when Trevor Pearcey first switched on his CSIR Mark 1. It was only the fourth computer in the world.

Pearcey, an Englishman who had worked on radar during World War II, had designed the machine from scratch and built it largely from surplus war material. It used 1500 vacuum tubes.

He started designing the computer in 1947, based on his knowledge of developments in the US and the UK. Most of the actual construction was undertaken by his colleague Maston Beard, a brilliant engineer.

Pearcey came to Australia after World War II to join the precursor of the CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in its radiophysics division. He and Beard had difficulty building the Mark 1, owing to a scarcity of parts, but when complete it was an advanced fully programmable computer that was to remain in operation nearly 20 years.

In 1957 it was shipped to the University of Melbourne, where it was renamed CSIRAC, the name by which it is best known today. It is on display in the Melbourne Museum, and is the oldest existing computer in the world.

Pearcey’s achievement was outstanding. Also remarkable was his prescience. In 1948 he said: “It is not inconceivable that an automatic encyclopaedic service, operated through the national teleprinter or telephone system, will one day exist.”

That is a remarkable prediction of the Internet, decades before it was even thought of.

All of Australia’s early computers were funded by government owned academic or research institutions. The same was true in North America and Europe – commercial computing was to follow much later.

Seven years after Pearcey’s Mark 1 three more computers appeared in Australia, almost simultaneously. They were SILLIAC at the University of Sydney, UTECOM at the New South Wales University of Technology (soon to be renamed the University of NSW), and WREDAC at the Weapons Research Establishment in South Australia.

SILLIAC was built in Australia to the design of the University of Illinois’ ILLIAC, while UTECOM and WREDAC were both made in England and shipped to Australia in pieces.

The story of these and other early computers in Australia is contained in a new book: ‘A Vision Splendid: The History of Australian Computing.’ It was written by Graeme Philipson, a computer journalist and historian and currently editor of GovernmentNews.

Commissioned by the Australian Computer Society (ACS), the book was released at the Society’s annual Reimagination conference in Sydney on 2 November. It tells the history of the industry and profession in Australia from before Trevor Pearcey to the present day.

It is the first comprehensive history of computers and computing in Australia. It shows our government funded bodies led the way, using computers mainly for scientific purposes. They were followed by banks and insurance companies and other commercial organisations, and then in the 1960s by government agencies for administrative purposes.

The book shows how Australia’s early advances in computing were not followed up. The Government made a decision in the 1950s that agricultural research should receive funding priority, and despite a few brave attempts at local manufacturing Australia never had a significant computer manufacturing industry. The vision was splendid, but the execution was not.

An eBook PDF version of the book is available here.

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