The Australian Computer Society (ACS) was formed 50 years ago, when the various state computer societies joined forces.
To mark the occasion, the ACS has initiated a heritage project to honour the many individuals who have contributed to the growth of the ICT profession in Australia.
At the heart of the project is a history of computing in Australia. It is not just a history of the ACS, but the history of a profession.
Australia has the longest computing history of any country, excepting the US and the UK, and CSIRAC in the Museum of Victoria is the oldest computer still in existence.
Australia’s first few computers attracted substantial interest from organisations – in the public and private sectors – which realised the opportunities offered by the new technology. SILLIAC and UTECOM in particular were widely used by organisations outside of the universities that housed them.
As more computers became commercially available, it became cost-effective for commercial organisations and government departments to buy or lease their own machines. From just four computers in Australia in 1956, there were 12 in 1958, and 34 in 1960. The number grew exponentially until it was impossible to count them all.
There exists a remarkable list of all the computers installed in Australia as of December 1962. It contains 74 machines. Though incomplete, it gives a good idea of the sorts of machines installed and organisations running them.
The computers in the listing come from ten different vendors, who were the dominant players in the early years of the Australian computer industry. These suppliers were often referred to as IBM and the BUNCH, which was an acronym for Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell. The term was of US origin, and did not include the other major player in Australia, ICL, which came into existence when all the British suppliers merged at the UK Government’s insistence in 1968. In Australia, it was IBM and the BUNCHI (though that term was never used). Some players in the list were absorbed by BUNCHI suppliers during the 1960s.
IBM (International Business Machines) dominates the list. IBM, often known as ‘Big Blue’, was a major force in the global electromechanical tabulating market from its foundation as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR) in 1911. It was headed by the legendary Thomas J Watson from 1914 and changed its name to IBM in 1924. IBM established an Australian office in 1932.
IBM entered the Australian computer market in the late 1950s with its Model 650, notable for its advanced (for that era) disk drive and the first commercial use of magnetic core memory. Nearly 2,000 650s were sold worldwide before they were discontinued in 1962, with a few making it to Australia.
The first IBM computer in Australia was a Model 650, installed in IBM’s new Sydney data centre in 1958. IBM also sold 650s to insurance companies AMP and MLC, and to utility AGL (Australian Gas Light), but its most successful early computer in Australia was the Model 1401.
The 1401, introduced in October 1959, was the most important machine in the early years of the global computer industry. It was optimised for data processing or ‘unit record’ computing – the sort of work that had been done by punch cards – rather than raw processing power. As such it was ideally suited to commercial applications.
The 1401 used magnetic core memory and high speed I/O devices. The machine was wildly successful – at one stage, in the mid-1960s, nearly half of all the computers in the world were from the IBM 1401 family. A high proportion of Australia’s first generation of computing professionals learnt their trade on the IBM 1401. Production of the 1401 did not stop until 1971.
In the early 1960s IBM also marketed the Model 1620 in Australia, a lower cost machine optimised for scientific analysis. It was mainly used by universities. The 7090 computer installed at the Weapons Research Establishment in 1961 was the first to be installed outside of the USA.
IBM computers were not sold outright, but leased.
NCR (National Cash Register) dates from 1884, when it was founded in Ohio by the legendary John H Patterson, regarded as the father of modern sales techniques. It came to Australia in 1907, and entered the computer market when it acquired Computer Research Corporation, a small Californian computer company, in 1952. In Australia and Britain, NCR resold the British Elliott 405 computer as ‘National Elliott’ branded machine. The 405 was a large computer similar to the 403, used at Australia’s Weapons Research Establishment in Salisbury.
ICT (International Computers and Tabulators) was formed in 1959 after a merger between British computer companies British Tabulating Machine Company (BTM) and Powers-Samas. It was itself merged into ICL in 1968. It sold the 1200 series (which still used vacuum tubes), the 1300 series (a transistor-based computer) and the 1500 series (designed by RCA in the US). The 1900 series, not sold in Australia, was a larger machine which in a modified version formed the basis of the ICL product range after the merger.
The 1300 series was the most popular in Australia. It was first delivered in 1962, and was an unusual machine in that it used decimal rather than binary logic, which enabled it to perform financial calculations in pounds, shillings and pence in hardware. (Australia did not move to decimal currency until 1966), which made it popular with financial institutions.
Burroughs started its life as the American Arithmometer Computer in St Louis, Missouri in 1886. In 1904 it moved to Detroit and changed its name to Burroughs, after the name of the man who invented its main product, a mechanical adding machine.
The E101 and E103 models that appear in the listing of computers installed in Australia were barely computers. They were essentially large accounting machines, which could be programmed to some extent by inserting pins into a removable board. They were not a great success. Burroughs merged with Sperry Univac in 1986 to form Unisys.
Bendix was a Californian engineering company founded in 1924. It made a range of electrical and mechanical equipment. Its G-15 computer, introduced in 1956, was inspired by the Alan Turing designed ACE. It used both valves and solid state diodes, and its main memory was a magnetic drum. It was intended primarily for scientific and engineering applications. Over 400 G-15s were made before Control Data Corporation acquired the Bendix computer division in 1963.
Ferranti was a British engineering company whose 1951 Ferranti Mark 1 was the first commercially available computer in the world. Its Sirius computer was a small machine released in 1961 with delay line memory and designed to sit in an office with no special power or cooling requirements. Ferranti’s computer division was sold to ICT in 1963, and became part of ICL in 1968.
US manufacturing giant GE (General Electric) was briefly a power in the computer industry, but sold its computer division to Honeywell in 1970. The GE 200 series, of which the GE 225 was the most popular, was a transistor-based system, but only ever used in Australia by GE’s computer bureau.
The Sperry Gyroscope Company was founded in New York in 1910 to manufacture navigational instruments. It acquired the Rand Corporation in 1955 and became Sperry Rand. In that year it also acquired the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, founded by the two men who designed the ENIAC, the world’s first electronic computer.
That technology was the basis for the UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer), one of the most successful early computers. The machines the company initially introduced to Australia were the UNIVAC model SS80 – the SS stood for ‘Solid State’, but they used magnetic amplifiers rather than transistors for their logic circuitry.
They were not popular – commercial success for Sperry in Australia was not to come until the introduction of the more advanced 1100 series machines, introduced locally in 1963. Sperry merged with Burroughs in 1986 to form Unisys.
Honeywell was founded in 1906 in Indiana to manufacture heaters. It grew into a multi-industry conglomerate and released its first computer in 1955, in a partnership with Raytheon called Datamatic. Its first computer, released that year, was the Datamatic 1000. In 1960 it bought out Raytheon and formed its own computer division, based in Minneapolis.
The 800 model it sold to Australia’s Department of Defence was a descendant of the Datamatic 1000. It was promoted as a machine for scientific purposes. Only 89 were ever made.
Control Data Corporation was started in Minneapolis in 1957 by a number of disgruntled Honeywell employees, including legendary supercomputer designer Seymour Cray. It was to be a major player in Australia in the 1960s, but in 1962 its only installed machine was at its local agent Heymanson & Co’s bureau in Melbourne. It was a CDC 160A, sometimes regarded as the first minicomputer, which was built into a standard office desk. Control Data Australia was to be established in Australia in 1963.