Why world's oldest computer in Australia won’t work again

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Summer Bytes see lots of interesting visitors. Last week, Dr Peter Thorne arrived to look around and told us about his involvement in Australia with the world’s oldest extant computer.

The fifth computer in the world and Australia’s first was CSIRAC (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Automatic Computer). It still exists, but no longer works and is never expected to be restored to working order.

Visiting Summer Bytes, Dr Peter Thorne from Australia, who was instrumental in saving CSIRAC, dropped by to have a chat and to see TNMOC’s collection of CSIRAC’s peers: the first generation EDSAC, WITCH and HEC.

The two tonne CSIRAC first become operational in 1949 at the CSIRO Division of Radiophysics in Sydney where it was used in scientific research. Initially called CSIR Mark I, it was moved to the University of Melbourne in 1955 where it was re-named CSIRAC

Peter described his first encounter with CSIRAC: “In the late 1950s I was an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne and I was made weekend service engineer to CSIRAC. I was 19 and to be honest I couldn’t fix the machine, but I at least could test it and tell people not to bother coming in to use it!

“CSIRAC’s development lagged the Manchester Baby by about one year but, unlike the Baby, it was an engineered machine. It was built by people who built radar equipment during the war. It wasn’t a research machine – it was built with cabinets and racks. Its fifteen year working life is testament to the quality of the original engineering.”

Peter was studying for his PhD at Melbourne when CSIRAC, superseded by a commercial machine, was finally turned off in 1964. It was already recognised as an important artefact, so instead of being scrapped, it was put into storage.

CSIRAC was briefly displayed at an IFIP conference in Melbourne in 1980, but then disappeared into storage again. In 1996 Peter Thorne was Head of Computer Science at The University of Melbourne and was in a position to do something to conserve and display CSIRAC:

“We got together some of the old engineers and users for a conference and I persuaded Museum Victoria to let us reassemble the machine. We went to the museum store and it was like a treasure trove! Parts of the machine were all over the store. But it was all there. We re-assembled it in a room in the Computer Science Department and after about a week it started to smell right! That smell of oil, capacitors and varnish!

The entire machine, including its original design documents and circuits, software library and custom-built peripherals, has been preserved intact. Carefully cleaned and reassembled as a Museum display it is a permanent exhibit in the Melbourne Museum.

“Fortunately, the Director of Museum Victoria, Dr Patrick Greene has been very sympathetic to our aims. He was Director of the Museum of Science and Technology in Manchester in 1998 when the Baby was reconstructed there. Brought up in Totnes, Devon, he’d actually been to the same school as Charles Babbage and even made cider with apples from same orchard that Babbage had scrumped!”

Peter is often asked if CSIRAC could ever be made to work again:

“With its 30KW and 300-volt power supplies, mercury delay lines and electrolytic capacitors – to put it back to working order, we’d have to make substantial changes. Our thinking is that we’d then have a non-original machine that would work for a few years while those of us who have the capability could maintain it. But at the end of that period, it would fall into disuse and become a non-original, non-working computer. We’ve thought about it, but a lot of the original would have to be replaced to make it safe to work again.”

CSIRAC does have one other claim to fame: it may have been the first to generate computer music in 1950/51. No original recording is known to exist, but it was played publically in 1951.

Fifty years later, a team comprising a musician and a number of computer pioneers went to extraordinary lengths to recreate the music using the original software – even to the extent of ensuring the background computer noise was recreated and included. Peter was fascinated by the sound, but not altogether convinced by its artistic merit: “It sounds a bit like comb and paper.”

Peter says “I am overwhelmed by TNMOC and the outstanding range of exhibits. Although I have been a long-time recipient of (and a past contributor to) CCS’s Resurrection newsletter, it was wonderful to see the outcome of all the projects I’ve read about. Particularly to have seen (and heard) the WITCH in operation.”

A confirmed museum addict Peter said that TNMOC meets his ideal for a museum: a repository of our technical heritage; a venue with plenty to see for an average “walk through” visitor, plus providing a very rich in-depth experience for those who have a deeper interest in the history of technology.

He is already planning his next visit in May 2017 so he can participate in the various TNMOC and CCS activities around that time.

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