CSIRAC was the first fully automatic electronic digital computer to be built in Australia. It was also one of the first in the world, so why didn't Australia become a computer superpower?
Warren Brown talks to Dr Peter Thorne, who worked on CSIRAC in the 1960s, and literally walks through the world's only surviving 'first generation computer' at the Melbourne Museum.
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Sixty-odd years ago, Australia was riding on the sheep's back. Our economy was built on wool and beef and wheat. But a groundbreaking invention could've changed all that. So instead of riding on the sheep's back — we could have been riding on the mouse's back.
This is the computer CSIRAC. It was the first fully automatic electronic digital computer to be built in Australia.
CSIRAC was also one of the first in the world, which made us a leader in the field. So why didn't Australia go on to become a computer superpower? These days, CSIRAC is on display at the Melbourne Museum. CSIRAC was built by the boffins at the CSIRO in the late 1940s. And this big monster of a thing, full of flashing lights and valves and switches and wires and gauges and knobs covers about 40 square metres. So you might be able to slide it into your garage. And it weighs about two tonnes.
But the amazing thing is CSIRAC chewed as much electricity as it takes to power a small town. Now, you're probably thinking that a computer that is big enough for me to crawl around inside must have a lot of grunt. Wrong. This wild-looking contraption is actually the hard drive and, despite its enormous size, it only has a capacity of about two kilobytes¹. And that's less than what's on your SIM card on your mobile phone. But in its day, CSIRAC was still 1000 times faster than the next best option — that was people operating mechanical calculators.
Dr Peter Thorne worked on CSIRAC in the 1960s. Not too many positive things came out of World War II, but computers were one of them. Weren't they, Peter?
DR PETER THORNE:
Yes, there was a need for calculations — huge calculations which couldn't be done by manual means — for ballistics and radar, code-breaking and other purposes. And by the end of 1949, we had one of the earliest computers in the world which had been built pretty much independent of the United States and the United Kingdom. And that's the computer we see here today.
So we were right up there with the British and the Americans.
DR PETER THORNE:
Yes, we were.
The technology was brand-new, but it wasn't foolproof. Just like now, a crash could strike at any time. These days a virus can cripple the world's computers, but back in the 1940s and 50s, it was the killer kettle. You see, CSIRAC needs a constant power supply. And one day, it was busily working away on a problem that'd been in the queue for two weeks when the tea lady next door decided she'll plug the kettle in, which blows a fuse. The power shut down. The whole thing went kaput. So, you'd need a good strong cuppa after that.
Peter, since Australia was right there at the very beginning of the digital age, what happened to us? Why did we fall behind the British and the Americans?
DR PETER THORNE:
Well, one of the reasons was that there was an attitude — and a policy, in fact — at the time, that Australia should concentrate its research and development on primary production, rather than on high technology such as computers.
CSIRAC was switched off for the last time in 1964. Incredibly, all of the tasks it performed in its 15 years of service could be processed by a home computer now in just a couple of minutes. It may seem like a dinosaur, but CSIRAC was an Australian breakthrough. It's the only surviving first-generation computer left in the world. And that makes it a National Treasure.
¹ Correction: CSIRAC had a capacity of five kilobytes.