CSIRAC: Australias First Computer (4th Computer in the World)

The computer CSIRAC was the first fully automatic electronic digital computer to be built in Australia – it was also one of the first computers in the world, which made us a leader in the field, so why didn’t Australia go on to become a Computer Superpower?

In the late 1940’s Australia was riding on the sheeps back, our economy was built on wool & beef & wheat. But CSIRAC, a ground breaking invention, could have changed all that so the Australian economy was riding on the computer mouse’s back instead.

CSIRAC-4th Computer in the World
CSIRAC – 4th Computer in the World. photo credit: theducks

In the late 1940s CSIR scientists Dr Trevor Pearcey, Mr Maston Beard and Mr Geoff Hill built a digital computer called CSIR Mark 1, which put Australia at the forefront of computing.

It revolutionised everything from weather forecasting to banking. It even played what is thought to be the first ever computer music. CSIR Mark 1 was renamed CSIRAC and ran its first program late in November 1949.

Huge Size But Small Capacity Relative to Modern Computers

CSIRAC is a big monster of a machine full of flashing lights, valves and switches, wires, gauges and nobs. It covers about 40 square metres, weighs several tonnes & required the same amount of electricity as a suburban street!

Now you’re probably thinking that a computer which covers 40 square metres must have a lot of grunt, but you’d be wrong.

CSIRAC only had a CPU running at .001MHz and despite the enormous physical size of the hard drive, it only had a capacity of 2 Kilobytes (a similar amount to the text in 13 SMS’s in your mobile phone) – but in its day it was still a 1000 times better than the alternative which was people using mechanical calculators.

Huge Improvement in Speed of Calculation

Before the invention of computers, scientists would perform complex calculations by hand or with the aid of a mechanical adding machine. Calculations could be done at the rate of about one operation per second.

Not too many positive things came out of WWII but computers were one of them – there was a need for ways to do huge calculations which couldn’t be done by manual means for ballistics, radar and code breaking and other purposes.

Lost Opportunities…

By the end of 1949 Australia had one of the earliest computers in the world which had been built pretty much independently of the USA or UK.

So since Australia was right up there with the British and Americans at the very beginning of the digital age, what happened to us? Why did we fall behind the British and Americans?

One of the reasons was the governments attitude and policy at the time that Australia should concentrate its research & development on primary production rather than on high technology like computers.

CSIRAC was switched off for the last time in 1964, incredibly all 1000 projects it performed in it’s 15 years of service could be processed by a home computer now in a few minutes.

It may seem like a dinosaur but CSIRAC was an Australian breakthrough. It’s the only surviving 1st generation computer in the world

These days CSIRAC is on display at the Melbourne Museum

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3 responses to “CSIRAC: Australias First Computer (4th Computer in the World)”

  1. Woww. I cant believe it. if I compare with todays PDA’s, I can imagine how small computers will be in the next century. thanks for the info

  2. This is strange. Today its normal to have an own (small!) computer at home. But – i think – thats the way it will go on. In 50 years the people will laugh about our 2 x 2,6 GHz Computers – will talk in an more futuristic way than blogging about the computer from 2009.

    With some luck I will be able to see it. Sorry for my bad english – my german is better ;o)

  3. Oh wow….. just to think that an average calculator has more power than that thing now….

    Fascinating… 🙂

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