History of computing in the Department

Over the last 60 years, the computer has evolved from a machine that filled an entire room and weighed thousands of kilograms into a mobile device most of us carry in our pocket, with around a million times more computing power.

CSIRAC was installed at the University in 1955 and was a serial computer with mercury acoustic delay-line memory. CSIRAC was faster than anything else available at the time, with the ability to perform 1000 operations per second. The computer used switch panels, punch cards and punched paper tape as input mechanisms, and CRT displays, a speaker and a teletype printer as output devices.

I think we all knew we were in at the beginning of something extraordinary. But our thinking was we would continue to build more and more powerful but big computers. What I don’t think I foresaw was miniaturisation and the impact that would have in terms of allowing everyone to have personal computers in their homes.

Peter Thorne

In 1964 the IBM 7044, a batch processing machine with magnetic tape storage, replaced CSIRAC. Mini-computers soon became available and a PDP-8 was purchased in 1967. Later departmental computers included Perkin-Elmer Interdata machines.

In the 1970s and 1980s the university used mini-computers with the MONECS operating system, to give students a computer experience. Student programs were submitted on punch cards that could be programmed with a pencil or even a bent paper clip.

The VAX 11/780 arrived in 1979, and later became the first munnari server — the bridge between all Australian email users and the rest of the world.

The Department developed equipment for research and teaching. Some of these systems, such as the Multigate, became a commercial success.

Until the 1970s a single computer served the whole department. Today, students have access to a vast range of systems, including mobile devices, desktop computers, servers, cloud computing and super computers.

The last fifty years of computing history has shown only one thing — that people that try and predict what will happen 10 years from now will be wrong, and that the big innovations in computing usage are likely to arrive from unanticipated directions.

Alistair Moffat

(I remember as a student) standing in line for access to the Interdata 7/16 computers. Later, when I was a tutor, watching the students standing in line for the PDP11s. Looking back, I remember the hard disk drives attached to the Interdata 8/32 — the size of a washing machine for a few Mb.

Graham Menhennit

(I can remember) using paper tape for a program on a (I think) a PDP-8 or PDP-16 just to multiply two numbers together.

Peter Garriga

For further reading, see Fifty Years of Computing at The University of Melbourne 1956–2006 [PDF], by Alistair Moffat.

Memories of the Department

Ron Bowles adjusting main clock frequency of CSIRAC at University of Melbourne, 1956. MSE-CIS Heritage Collection.
Ron Bowles at the IBM 7044, c1969. Image courtesy University of Melbourne Archives.
Andrew Mack, Systems Programmer using the Sun 3/60. VAX 11/780 in background, c1987. Image courtesy University of Melbourne.
Prue Downey, Staff Member and Student, 1986. Image courtesy University of Melbourne.
Staff member at Digital Gigi terminal, c1982. Image courtesy University of Melbourne Archives.

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