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David Demant
"To the people who used it, CSIRAC was magic"
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Wednesday, 24 November, 1999, 11:59 GMT
Birthday for computing dinosaur
Trevor Pearcey looks over CSIRAC

Australia cut a birthday cake on Wednesday to celebrate an important piece of technological history.

It is exactly 50 years ago that CSIRAC, the nation's very first computer, sprang into life and ran a program.

Speed - 0.001 Mhz
Word size - 20 bit
RAM - 768 words
Disk capacity - 2048 words
Weight - 7,000 kg
Like so many of the machines from the early days of computing, CSIRAC is a monster. It weighs something like 7,000 kg and its racking takes up all the available space in a medium-sized room.

And although history will remember it as only the world's fifth, stored-program, electronic computer ever to be built, at least we can still see it.

Unlike its predecessors, such as Baby and Edsac which were broken up or cannibalised for use in upgraded equipment, CSIRAC has got to the end of the 20th Century with all its valves intact. It is the last of its species.

Permanent display

After 35 years of being pushed around storerooms and exhibitions, it is about to go on permanent, public display at the new Melbourne Museum when it opens next year. It is even being restored with the help of two of the original engineers.

But CSIRAC will never again have to work any calculations. "If you switched it on now it would probably catch fire," said David Demant, the curator of the Museum of Victoria's digital technology exhibition.

"Many of its components have corroded and gone brittle. It would be like turning on Hal from 2001 - in reverse."

CSIRAC stands for Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Automatic Computer. The machine came out of a research group at the council's Radiophysics Laboratory in Sydney, led by Maston Beard and Trevor Pearcey. Their design was based on the vacuum tube or "valve" technology and the pulse techniques developed for radar systems during World War II.

Novel features

Originally called the CSIR Mark 1, the computer ran its first test program in late November, 1949 - a long multiplication routine. The computer embodied many features that were novel at the time and was able to operate more than 1000 times faster than the best mechanical calculators.

CSIRAC History
1946 - Trevor Pearcey starts design work
1949 - Machine runs its first program
1951 - CSIRAC is officially opened
1964 - Decommissioned and replaced by an IBM 7044
2000 - Put on display at the new Melbourne Museum
"It worked at a speed (1,000 operations per second) which in those days was incredibly fast," says Mr Demant. "To the people who used it, CSIRAC was magic."

But unlike today's desktops which typically have 64 megabytes of random access memory, CSIRAC had to get by on about 2 kbytes of RAM and it was eventually overtaken by superior machines and decommissioned.

Its significance, though, cannot be understated, says Mr Demant. "Not only did it introduce Australia to computers, but it trained the first generation of computer users."

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See also:
15 Apr 99 |  Sci/Tech
Pioneers recall computer creation
17 Jun 98 |  Sci/Tech
Baby is 50

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