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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 8

I Part 1: Communications

II Epilogue

III Part 2: Early Australian Computers And Computing
i Instruments and calculators
ii The transition to the computer, 1945 to 1951
iii The first computers, 1951 to 1956
iv Concentration on large-scale systems, 1958 to 1963
v Software and microelectronics, after 1965
vi Industry, education and the computing fraternity

IV Acknowledgements



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The first computers, 1951 to 1956

Following the 1951 Conference, the Mk 1 was progressively improved and applied (Beard, M. and Pearcey, T. 1984). One of the first courses in computing was given by Pearcey in the Department of Mathematics at Sydney University from 1947 to 1952 and many people visited the Mk 1 to learn about and to use the machine, including J. A. Ovenstone, a student of computing before graduating in mathematics and physics. He joined WRE, Salisbury, SA, and was seconded to work for his doctorate under Hartree from 1949 to 1952 using the EDSAC at the Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory. Hartree had attended the 1951 conference at the invitation of the CSIRO, as the CSIR had become, and was asked to advise the Organisation on the course it should take in view of the growing importance of computing. It is understood that he advised the setting up of a 'Division of Applied Mathematics' which would include in its operations research in computing and computing machinery. It was, presumably, on the basis of his advice that a proposal to set up a facility was referred to J. C. Jaeger, then Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Tasmania and a consultant to the CSIRO. Jaeger was a frequent visitor to RP and interested in the Mk 1, and so was likely to head such a division. That plan fell through, however, when Jaeger decided to accept the Chair of Geophysics at the new Australian National University, Canberra. Presumably, such a division would most probably have incorporated both the SMI and the RP computing projects.

H. Messel had taken up his appointment to a new chair of Physics at Sydney University in 1953. At his initiative the Nuclear Research Foundation was established and funded by contributions from many interested business men and commercial organisations. Early in 1954 it became clear that the research envisaged would require an electronic computer of speed much greater than that of the Mk 1. An appropriate machine, the ILLIAC, was in successful operation in the University of Illinois and its design plans would be available.

An appeal to fund the construction of the machine was launched early in 1954. In the event it was entirely funded by the generous contribution of 50,000, later extended to 100,000, for extensions to the machine, by Sir (then Mr) Adolph Basser. This was the first of a number of generous contributions by Sir Adolph to advance Australian computing. B. E. Swire, a Sydney graduate in mechanical and electrical engineering, was appointed as Chief Engineer to supervise the construction of the machine, the design of which was somewhat modified to suit local requirements. Construction of the electronics was carried out locally by STC and assembled at the School of Physics. It was completed six months ahead of schedule and ran its first program on 24 June 1956. The Adolph Basser Computing Laboratory, which was to operate the machine, the SILLIAC, was formally opened by the Governor of New South Wales, Sir John Northcote on 12 September 1956.

J. M. Bennett joined the SILLIAC project early in 1956, as Chief Numerical Analyst to the Basser Laboratory. He already had gained much experience in the electronic and programming aspects of computers in the UK where, following graduation from Queensland University in engineering, mathematics and physics and some time with Myers in ET, he became M. V. Wilkes' first research assistant at the Mathematical Laboratory, Cambridge, where he was one of the pioneers of the EDSAC team. The EDSAC was the first machine to be placed into regular service (in 1949). Later he designed the instruction set for the Ferranti Mk I*, a development of the Ferranti Mk 1, which was built to his specifications. (The Ferranti Mk 1 was a manufactured version of the Manchester MADM, which is credited with having been the first to run significant programs -in June 1948.) He also initiated the design of the Ferranti Perseus computer, a machine designed primarily for the insurance industry. His experience was to be of great value to the success of the SILLIAC and to Australian computing in the following years (Swire, B. and Bennett, J. M., 1957).

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Adolph Basser Computing Laboratory; Nuclear Research Foundation; Standard Telephones and Cables (S.T.C.); University of Melbourne. Department of Electrical Engineering

People in Bright Sparcs - Basser, Sir Adolph; Bennett, J. M; Jaeger, Prof. J. C.; Messel, H.; Myers, D. M.; Ovenstone, John Allen; Pearcey, T; Swire, B. E.

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 617 - 618, Online Edition 2000
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