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Sixty years of computing in Victoria

It filled a room and undertook as much computation in its working life as a smartphone could complete in a minute, but CSIRAC was also an Australian first and celebrates 60 years in Victoria this month.

CSIRAC came into operation in Melbourne on June 14, 1956 after seven years of service for CSIRO in Sydney. It was Australia’s only computer at the time, running until 1964. CSIRAC has since been rebuilt and is now on display in the Melbourne Museum and is the oldest computer in the world that is still intact.

Professor Justin Zobel, Head of the Department of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne said that CSIRAC could run at about 1000 instructions per second and could store just a few kilobytes: the equivalent of a page of text in a typical book.

“A computer today of similar size and power consumption would be almost a supercomputer – a billion times faster and with perhaps a trillion times as much storage,” Professor Zobel said.

“In its lifetime of 14 years of operation, CSIRAC undertook about as much computation as a smartphone can complete in a minute. This seemed miraculous to the users at the time, as it provided automation of processes in ways that had previously been inconceivable,” he said.

Computers have changed immeasurably since the days of CSIRAC, which had consoles of switches and dials instead of a keyboard and mouse and almost no permanent storage, file systems or recognisable screens.

“Working with paper tape and fanfold printouts, the skills of early computer scientists might seem remote from a world of touch screens and motion sensors, but many of the underlying skills of computing professionals are much the same,” Professor Zobel said.

[photo: Jurij Semkiw at CSIRAC Operating Console 1964 – University of Melbourne]