Early Computing at the University of Melbourne

Paper Punch Cards for Student Records

The earliest computing system in operation at the University of Melbourne was a Hollerith punch card system used to keep student records. The Hollerith system predates digital computing as we know it today, more closely resembling a reference card system. Correspondence from the Office of the Registrar at the University of Melbourne documents the use of this punch card system for student registration in the 1950s and ‘60s. Under this system students were assigned student numbers and their personal information, enrolment details, previous education, scholarships, commitment to employment and academic history details were recorded on these cards. One report on the Hollerith system dated 14 October 1958 praises the speed of the punch machine:

...the Hollerith tabulator prints 4,800 lines of print in an hour, which is more than ten times the speed of a high speed typist University Of Melbourne, Office Of The Registrar, 1989.0045 Box 6.

The same report, however, outlines the need for greater efficiency in the Registrar’s Office, which ‘would require the full-time employment of two girls at the peak enrolment period from 1st January to University commencement.’

CSIRAC comes to the University of Melbourne

Newsreel Title c1956. Image courtesy University of Melbourne, MSE-CIS Heritage Collection. This sign was donated to Museum Victoria as part of the CSIRAC Archive.

A unique occasion in University computing history is recorded in the University of Melbourne Mathematical Society minutes. On Thursday 5th July 1956 at 1.15pm a meeting was held to demonstrate the University's new computer, CSIRAC, to the Mathematical Society. To the amazement and delight of the students and staff present, the computer produced a musical rendition of ‘Gaudeamus Igitur.’

The first digitally stored memory computer in Australia, and fourth of its kind in the world, CSIRAC was the supercomputer of its day. First operated in 1949 in Sydney, the computer was relocated in 1955 to the University of Melbourne.

CSIRAC was a giant that filled a room the size of a double garage. The Mathematical Society minutes contain a clipping from student magazine Farrago which records that around 100 students turned up for the demonstration of CSIRAC and many stayed afterwards to discuss the computer further with Mr Ern Palfreyman, the organiser of the event. The minutes also include a flier distributed by the Physics Department containing instructions on how to use CSIRAC for calculation functions.[1]

After a decade at the University of Melbourne, CSIRAC was decommissioned in December 1964 to make way for newer, faster computers. Its obsolescence indicated the growing speed of technological development in computing that would soon sweep through the university and other organisations.

CSIRAC is now held in the Melbourne Museum collections. Principal material relating to CSIRAC is accessible through Museums Victoria.

University Computer Department

By the 1960s, the University of Melbourne was preparing for the arrival of new electronic computers that would be faster and more powerful than CSIRAC.

In July 1961 a proposal made to the Vice-Chancellor to redevelop the University's Printing Department Area to accommodate the new ‘I.C.T. (International Computers and Tabulators, formerly “Hollerith” Section).’[2] What is striking about this report is the space forecasted to be required by the new electronic computers; 1600 square feet (almost 150 square metres) is set aside.

The University of Melbourne’s Computer Facilities changed names several times through the second half of the twentieth century, each name change reflecting the rising significance of the Department’s status in academia. A letter dated 4th October 1963 from Professor Cherry to the Vice-Chancellor asks if ‘the time has come when this Laboratory should be given the status of a Department.’ This coincided with the University's purchase of a new computer system, the IBM 7044. Only a few years later, the Computing Department became the Department of Information Science.[3]

The Computer User’s Committee held its first meeting in 1967 in light of recent system breakdowns and bottlenecks, caused chiefly by lack of staff and increasing demand:

...the computer provides an essential service to a large number of departments within the University and that a breakdown in its services would affect the research and undergraduate teaching of many departments. The committee believes that the staff needs of the Computation Department must be met despite the present financial difficulties within the University Computing at the University of Melbourne, 1956-2015.

One archival document that demonstrates the urgency for system upgrade and an increase in staff is a report titled ‘Proposal for New Computer Equipment for the University of Melbourne for the 1970-1972 Triennium.’ The proposal says that the workload for the current system was doubling each year, and that such exponential growth is the key reason for new investment in updated computer equipment. The total price for the proposed equipment acquisition comes to over $2.3 million (over $28 million today) and includes a 64KB central processor for a hefty $1.2 million ($14.7 million today). The proposal includes an extra $70,000 for air-conditioning, raised flooring and electrical installation, and a further eleven staff members to be hired in addition to the existing sixteen.[5]

The University of Melbourne Archives also hold Computer Centre records from the 1970s onwards which contain information about funding, regulation of access, renting prices and architectural plans for redevelopment.[6]

Students and Computers

With the growing importance of computers in the 1960s, the University Mathematical Society began hosting many talks about computing and its potential. For example, in August 1962 their guest was Mr Zartosky from the Language Department who spoke about language translation by computers. Two years later the Mathematical Society heard from Dr Maxwell White, Manager of Scientific Marketing at IBM, who spoke on the topic of digital computing as a career.[7]

A novel use for the University's new IBM 7044 was conducted by the University Theatre Repertory Company in 1966-67. A document titled ‘Theatre by Computer!’ can be found in the Elizabeth Doyle collection.[8] The brochure asked theatregoers to select plays they would like to see by filling out a form. The University of Melbourne computer would then count the votes to devise a ‘season of play revivals.’

By the 1980s, individual computer terminals were available for widespread student use. The University Archives contain an amusing instructional video made in 1981 titled ‘Getting Started’ from the Department of Computer Science.[9] Watch some of the highlights below.