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Federation and MeteorologyBureau of Meteorology
Table of Contents

Weather News



Personal Notes



Observers and Volunteers


Commissioning Ceremony of the Bureau's IBM 360/65 Computer
Computer—Important Forward Step
New Era for Meteorology
How We Got the Computer
The Computer
Processing 159 Million Rainfall Observations . . . Approx
Computing in the Bureau—The Early Years


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No. 287 September 1988 (continued)

Rapid development

It was a time when the pace of developments left us gasping. Requirements for processing which were completely unforeseeable at tender stage, burst forth. By March 1969 when the second mainframe was being installed it was already apparent that there would be little available time for external users, such as the Meteorological Department at Melbourne University which had been keen for on-line access to climatological and synoptic data.

A Steering Committee on ADP was set up in May 1969 to resolve problems in allocation of machine and programmer time and identification of long-term requirements. From then on the problem of coping with the rapidly increasing volume and range of tasks was always present (and possibly always will be).

While the computer was at Exhibition Street the programmers were initially at Spring Street, in a rickety building above an old pub. (Gerry O'Mahoney offered the licensee free forecasts in exchange for free beer, but to no avail). Then they were transferred to the Flotta Lauro building in Bourke Street, and finally to Lonsdale Street. User groups were tucked away in countless odd spots throughout the city (and interstate). All the more remarkable then, was the safe delivery to one of our programmers of a letter addressed to him in Weatherby Row, Melbourne'.

Move to Lonsdale Street

After six years at Exhibition Street the computer and communications installations were transfered very smoothly to Lonsdale Street in 1974. This was a complex undertaking as round-the-clock operations had to be maintained.

A characteristic of those early days was the relative expense of central processors, especially memory. The philosophy of the day was centralisation, because 'bigger is cheaper'(summed up in what was known as "Grosch's Law"—computing power increases in proportion to the square of the cost, e.g. twice the cost gives four times the power), and partly because networking technology was not sufficiently advanced.

It was an era of large central installations and this imposed severe barriers between the users and the computing facilities. This situation was not helped by the need to invoke the help of programming specialists. In the jargon of today, the system was far from friendly, some would say 'hostile'.

The need for a modern communications system was foreseen from the start but its development remained one of the most challenging tasks for many years. From an embryonic system of terminating telex lines on stand-alone magnetic tape units and manually transferring the tapes to on-line tape units, the communications system evolved through a number of increasingly complex stages to the highly efficient and powerful system of today.

Regional Office frustrations

With the primary emphasis on the development of the basic systems at Head Office, the resources were not available to provide Regional Offices with accessible computing facilities. Some rather fumbling attempts were made to provide remote support, but officers keen to exploit the new tools, particularly in Adelaide, Brisbane, and Sydney, suffered extreme frustration.

Years were to pass before the Regions could see the possibility of their own facilities. These early attempts at long-range support included remote calculations of balloon flight data and an operational ionospheric prediction service, both based on telex-transmitted data and courier-delivered output.

The first steps were also taken in the development of a flood-forecasting system Queensland and NSW, with periods of 'residence' at Head Office for the Regional research staff.

Research needs

Overseas, meteorology had long been recognised as having an insatiable demand for computing power and for pioneering the use of the most powerful equipment available. This was particularly true of its research programs. This caught up with the Bureau as the planning and specification of the first installation preceded the formation of the Commonwealth Meteorological Research Centre; hence this early major user of facilities could not have been taken into account in the specifications.

The needs for research were prodigious as illustrated by the story of Barry Hunt, who, one Easter eve, lodged a Global Circulation Model with the request to leave it running non-stop for five days with maximum power available dedicated to it. I know what happens up to three days computing', he said. The risk was so great that a power failure any time in that Easter period would render the whole trial useless.

The unrelenting competition for access between the research, operations and general developments interests was to be a major factor in computer management, and a source of all-round frustration for many years, but it was also a powerful driving force and motivation towards systems expansion and improvement.

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