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Weather News



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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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Computing in the Bureau—The Early Years

No. 287 September 1988

No one is better qualified to write about the history of computers in the Bureau than Bill Fiddian, who retired in 1983 after more than 20 years in Head Office. Bill made a major contribution first by setting up the operations branch of the central computer system, and from 1971 onwards (as Coordinator Applications Planning) he was responsible for many of the Bureaus computer applications systems.

In the following article Bill recalls some of his memories of those early years . . .

Coinciding with the acceptance of the new supercomputer is the celebration of 20 years of computer installation in the Bureau, as the first IBM 360/65 was delivered in February 1968.

Of course computing in the Bureau goes back earlier than that. It is perhaps not generally realised how early in the field the Bureau was, and how far-seeing the Director, Len Dwyer, was when, he sent Gerry O'Mahoney to the United States in 1957 and the U.K. in 1960 to see what computing had to offer the Bureau.

At that time there were no Commonwealth Government Departments and very few private firms with computers, and detailed surveys and exploratory studies were carried out to determine the Bureau's computing requirements.

IBM 360/65s—first in Australia

These studies eventually led to the purchase of two IBM 360/65s. The first of these was delivered to IBM premises in February 1968 where it underwent acceptance tests and was used for IBM Customer Engineer training (it was the first IBM 360/65 in Australia).

While this was taking place alterations were being completed to the Operations Centre at 254 Exhibition Street. This work was delayed by various problems; among them that of seepage from the lane at the back. This led to inevitable jokes such as 'the Bureau's eight magnetic tapes in a pool', and 'the advantages of floating-point arithmetic'.

In June the equipment was transferred to Exhibition Street with its street frontage windows on two sides and its prominent 'World Meteorological Centre' sign overhead. This created great interest from passers-by, particularly as the plotters and printers were positioned next to the windows for good viewing of analysis chart production (and it must be admitted, the occasional Snoopy cartoon, pin-up nude or Captain Cook calendar, produced it was said as device familiarisation exercises, usually during the street-deserted midnight shift).

Commissioning ceremony

The commissioning ceremony the following month was filmed for television, and Gerry O'Mahoney, Controller ADP, led the official party past the bank of magnetic tape units towards the camera. I was standing behind the cameraman and Gerry gave me a wink as he looked straight towards the camera. At this ceremony there was a display of equipment representing developments from punched cards through calculators to early (valve) computers and transistors. This created great interest with its theme of the Bureau's continuing technological progress.

By August the then-termed Real Time System was running on a 9 to 5 basis in parallel with the manual system, while bugs were removed and confidence was built up. October saw the start of two-shift operation and Doug Gauntlett went to the United States to study numerical prediction models.

From the start the focus was the operational use for analysis and prognosis, with of course parallel development of research. Work was also progressing on each of the other 'omni-systems' as the Director Bill Gibbs termed them, namely Weather Records and Staff Records.

Bureau's first computer installation

The Bureau's first computer installation—the IBM 360/65. In the foreground and sporting a 1960s haircut is Al Ebenreuter, now Manager of the Computer Centre.

People in Bright Sparcs - Dwyer, Leonard Joseph; Gauntlett, Douglas John

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© Online Edition Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre and Bureau of Meteorology 2001
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