Australia's first computer back on display

Thursday, 26 July, 2018

Australia's first computer back on display

The world’s longest surviving first-generation computer has found a new home at Melbourne’s Scienceworks museum.

Half the size of a shipping container and about a millionth of the speed, computing power and volume of a smartphone, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Automatic Computer (CSIRAC) was at the cutting edge of the new field of computing when it was built in 1949. It was Australia’s first stored-memory computer and the fourth in the world to ever be built.

Originally engineered at CSIRO in Sydney, CSIRAC was moved to the University of Melbourne in 1955. After taking a year to reassemble, it was ceremoniously switched on in 1956.

For the next eight years, CSIRAC provided a highly sought after computing service for science and industry, with people often waiting weeks to gain access. Operating for approximately 30,000 hours and tackling around 700 projects, it was used to play the first electronic music, make weather forecasts, calculate mortgages and even play some of the first computer games.

CSIRAC was large, energy hungry and temperamental, particularly on hot days. Occasionally somebody would plug in an electric jug, overload the power system and all that day’s work would be lost. But engineers were consistently working to improve its storage and speed.

Dr Peter Thorne, former Head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Melbourne, worked with CSIRAC as weekend computer technician in the early 1960s. He said that to the Australian ICT sector, CSIRAC is a symbol of our nation’s sustained excellence in information and communications technology, from the very beginning of the computer age.

“A team of computing pioneers and volunteers has worked for decades to ensure that the history of CSIRAC is fully documented,” he said. “As a result, CSIRAC is now recognised internationally: as the only survivor of the handful of machines that launched the modern digital age and as the first computer to play music.”

CSIRAC has been in Museums Victoria’s collection since 1964 and was on display at the Melbourne Museum from 2000 until 2017. It has now been relocated to the Think Ahead exhibition at Scienceworks, where it will be on permanent display.

“CSIRAC is one of the most significant objects in Museums 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 Jonathan Shearer, Acting General Manager of Scienceworks. “CSIRAC’s story shows that Australia has a strong record of innovation in STEM and we hope it inspires a fascination in technology and science in visitors of all ages.”

Image courtesy of Museums Victoria.

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