Preamble: The Australian Computer Society was formed 50 years ago, when the various state computer societies joined forces.
To mark the occasion, the ACS has initiated a heritage project to honour the many individuals who have contributed to the growth of the ICT profession in Australia.
At the heart of the project is a history of computing in Australia. It is not just a history of the ACS, but the history of a profession.
Australia has the longest computing history of any country, excepting the US and the UK, and CSIRAC in the Museum of Victoria is the oldest computer still in existence.
Chapter 3: Harry Messel and the birth of SILLIAC
In 1952, a dynamic 29-year old physicist named Harry Messel was appointed to new chair of physics at the University of Sydney. He was to hold the position until 1987.
It nearly didn’t happen. The son of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada, Messel had come to Australia in 1951 to teach at the University of Adelaide. He made his mark very quickly, establishing a reputation as a brilliant theoretician and a tireless and vocal advocate for science and technology. He resigned after a strong disagreement, which almost became a physical fight, with Vice-Chancellor Albert Rowe over the role of physics at the University.
Flying back to Canada, he was intercepted at Sydney Airport and offered the job of resuscitating the University of Sydney’s moribund Physics Department. He set out a range of conditions, which he did not believe would be accepted, but which were.
He wanted an increase in staff from 7 to 21 and funding for cosmic ray research as a path into nuclear physics. In recommending him, University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Sir Stephen Roberts told the University Senate that “while the tribulations of the administration will probably be added to by this dynamic personality, the Department of Physics will gain increasing international reputation.”
So it was to be. Messel’s first act was to recruit prominent physicists from around the world, including John Blatt from the University of Illinois. It was to be an important decision for the future of Australian computing.
Packer to the rescue
In 1954, Messel established the Nuclear Research Foundation (later to be renamed the Science Foundation for Physics) within the Department. He was eventually to raise over $130 million for the Foundation. The first donation came from press baron Sir Frank Packer, who offered £2,000 a year in exchange for ‘absolutely nothing’.
Messel knew he would need a computer to do the sorts of calculations he was planning.
“We are planning to perform a large-scale experiment to investigate the structure and origin of the large air-showers in the cosmic radiation … This experiment would be completely useless without an electronic computing machine to analyse the data, since analysis by human beings using desk calculators would take 2,000 man-years … The electronic computer will be able to do the job in 800 hours.”
He soon realised he would need substantially more computing power than that available from Trevor Pearcey’s Mark I, which was at that stage the only computer in Australia. It was in any case difficult to gain access to Pearcey’s machine, and Blatt found Pearcey and the Mark I staff difficult to deal with.
Blatt persuaded Messel to build a copy of ILLIAC (Illinois Automatic Computer), a much more powerful machine that he had worked on in the US, rather than to design and build a machine from scratch.
ILLIAC was as advanced as any of the dozen or so computers that existed in the world at the time. Like many of the other early machines, it grew out of work conducted at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) by John von Neumann, an extremely influential early US computer pioneer.
A child prodigy with a prodigious intellect and a photographic memory, Budapest-born von Neumann moved to the IAS, where Albert Einstein was also a professor, in 1933. He was an important figure in the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, and his famous ‘First Draft of a Report on EDVAC’ described the design of the modern stored program computer, now known as the von Neumann architecture.
Under von Neumann, a computer based on these principles was built at IAS. The Cold War had begun in earnest, and a number of other computer using similar designs were built, mostly for military use. These included ORDVAC for the Army Ordnance Department, ORACLE (Oak Ridge Automatic Computer and Logic Engine) for the Atomic Energy Commission, and the wonderfully named MANIAC at the Los Alamos atomic weapons site. But one was for education – the ILLIAC at the university of Illinois in Urbana, 100km south of Chicago.
The first step was to get hold of the design for ILLIAC, which Blatt was able to secure from his former colleagues. The second was to develop a budget. Blatt had not got on well with most of Pearcey’s people, but he had established a friendship with the Mark I’s maintenance engineer John Algie, who was able to calculate the cost of building the machine from the detailed drawings supplied by the ILLIAC team. Algie calculated an Australian version could be built for £35,000 an amount worth more than $3 million today.
Funding and building SILLIAC
With typical enthusiasm, Messel went about raising the money. He wrote to the British Dominions and Colonies Fund of the Carnegie Foundation. He wrote to the Nuffield Foundation. He suggested to the Government’s Long Range Weapons Establishment, soon to buy its own computer, that it fund ILLIAC in Sydney, which came to be known as SILLIAC. He addressed meetings of the business community and academia. Nobody was willing to put up the money – most of them had no idea what a computer was.
Then he was introduced to Adolph Basser, a Polish Jew who had emigrated to Australia in 1908 and made a fortune in the jewellery business. Basser had a strong interest in science and technology and on 12 February 1954, he donated £50,000 to Messel’s Foundation.
Basser’s great love has horse racing. His horse Delta had won the Melbourne Cup in 1951, ridden by the great jockey Neville Sellwood. He sometimes said that the money he donated for SILLIAC came from his race winnings, which makes for a good story, except that the two events were more than two years apart and he had made many other donations in the intervening period. Basser, who was to be knighted for his philanthropic contributions to Australian medicine and science, later doubled his donation, and the Computing Laboratory at the university still bears his name.
The next step was finding someone to build SILLIAC. The Australian subsidiary of British company STC (Standard Telephones and Cables) was contracted to do the chassis and wiring, but not to be responsible for the project as a whole. The senior engineer was Brian Swire, hired out of the Government Aeronautical Research Labs in Melbourne, who was joined by John Algie from CSIRO, the man who had costed the project. Swire spent six months in Urbana getting to know the intricacies of ILLIAC, returning in March 1955, and construction was completed in January 1956.
They needed someone to develop software and run the machine day-to-day. They found him in the form of John Bennett, an Australian computer pioneer living in England at the time. He was persuaded to leave a high paying job with IBM and return to Australia.
Bennet was to become one of the most influential people in the Australian computer industry, and was to be the first President of the Australian Computer Society.
Veteran ICT journalist Graeme Philipson is researching and writing the Heritage Project book, which is due for release on the 50th anniversary of the formal incorporation of the ACS, on 3 October 2017.
The project also involves the creation of a ‘virtual museum’, cataloguing hardware and other artefacts, and collecting and curating documents on the history of the industry, including oral histories of as many people as possible.
Please get in touch with Graeme if you would like to contribute, at email@example.com