The Australian Computer Society (ACS) 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 26: The rest of the BUNCH
IBM’s five big mainframe competitors in the 1970s and 1980s were called the BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell). We looked at Honeywell last week and Control Data in Chapter 12. Next week, we’ll look at British mainframe company ICL.
The B and U of the Bunch were Burroughs and Sperry (whose mainframes went by the brand name of Univac). The two companies merged in 1986 to form Unisys. They both had a long and illustrious history as mainframe suppliers, with many installations in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s.
Burroughs was founded in St Louis, Missouri by William S. Burroughs in 1887 to market the adding machines he devised. The company was an early entry into the computer industry in the 1950s.
It had some success with its A series mainframes, which attracted a comparatively small but loyal user base. In the 1960s and 1970s, the next generation of B series mainframes were widely recognised to be technological leaders.
Burroughs set up in Australia in the 1920s to sell adding machines. It started selling computers in Australia in the early 1960s. It had some early success with its be 5000 series – including a significant sale of a 5500 to Monash University (see Chapter 20) – and smaller machines for accountants, but its biggest successes came with its B6500 and B6700 machines, introduced in Australia in the early 1970s.
By 1978 Burroughs had gained 9% of the Australian computer market (based on value of installed base). Larger users included the Ford Motor Company and Citibank.
Burroughs had a major breakthrough in Australia in 1971 when it won a large order from Victoria’s Gas & Fuel Corporation for dual B6700s, replacing two IBM 360/40s that were less than five years old. It also sold a B6700 to insurance company CML.
Sperry was the descendant of the Sperry Rand Corporation, which released the world's first commercial mainframe, the Univac (UNIVersal Automatic Computer) developed by computing pioneers J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly from their work with the first computers in World War II.
Sperry was successful with the Univac, but after IBM decided to enter the mainframe market, it soon moved into Big Blue's shadow. Its greatest successes were in the enormous US government and defence markets. In 1967 Sperry established a specialised Univac division with an office in Sydney, which was able to capitalise on the growing computer market in Australia at that time.
It scored a major win when insurance company AMP defected from the IBM camp and ordered a $4 million Univac 1110 in 1973.
All good things must come to an end
But the good times didn’t last. By the early 1980s both Burroughs and Sperry were struggling on many fronts. They missed the microcomputer boom entirely, and their minicomputer entries were not doing well. Their mainframe lines represented between them the largest installed base of non-IBM and PCM mainframes, but their market shares were declining.
The 1986 merger between the two companies was initiated by Burroughs' Michael Blumenthal, and was accepted by Sperry after a long courtship. But there were problems in bringing the two organisations together, which included selling off some divisions to finance the merger, and it soon got back in Australia to be overtaken by DEC and Japanese supplier Fujitsu.
Unisys's financial problems persisted. It was saddled with an enormous debt, a legacy of the merger. It maintained a sizeable user base, but this declined as the company increasingly moved into services. The two disparate mainframe lines were slowly merged over two decades, but Unisys declined and is today a mid-range services company.
NCR, the N in Bunch. The initials originally stood for National Cash Register. The company was founded in Dayton, Ohio in 1884 by John Patterson, who is credited with founding modern salesmanship, and was mentor to Thomas J Watson, who founded IBM.
NCR moved into mechanical accounting machines in 1921, and electronic computers in 1952, when it acquired Computer Research Corporation (CRC). In 1957, to broaden its product range, it entered into an agreement with the United Kingdom’s Elliott computers to jointly develop and market computers worldwide under the National Elliott brand.
It also continued its own development and released its first transistorised computer, the Model 304, in 1958. The arrangement with Elliott ended in 1967 when that company merged with English Electric.
NCR began selling computers in Australia in 1959 under the National-Elliott brand. In 1960 it established an ‘EDP Centre’ in York Street in Sydney, which it claimed to be the first computer bureau in Australia.
The bureau used a National-Elliott 405 computer, a valve computer first released in 1956. That computer later went to CSIRO and is now displayed in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.
In 1968 it introduced its first integrated circuit machine, the Century 100. The Century 200 and century 300 followed, and were the mainstay of its product line in the 1970s. Like the IBM System/360, they were a family of compatible computers.
They were quite successful in Australia, and in 1971 NCR had 11% of the Australian computer market by installed base. It increased this to 13% by 1976, winning a number of major orders, including $4.75 million deal in 1973 with Department of Social Security for an Australia-wide network of data terminals in 67 DSS offices.
Another major sale during this period was a $3 million deal with insurance company T&G, which in 1974 ordered Century 151 mainframes for each of its Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth officers, connected to a Century 300 in Melbourne.
NCR changed its name to NCR Corporation from National Cash Register in 1974, which was about the time it stared began to fade. It always stayed close to its roots, and as a computer supplier retained a strong presence in financial computing and transaction processing. Even today it remains a major supplier of ATMs.
It had a brief resurgence after it released its Tower series in 1982, a minicomputer that was one of the first specifically designed to run the UNIX operating system, but by this time NCR had lost critical mass as a mainframe supplier.
In 1991 it was acquired by telecommunications giant AT&T. In 1994 it changed its name briefly to AT&T Global Information Solutions, but it was spun off in the late 1990s and reverted to the name NCR. By that time, it had ceased to be a serious computer supplier.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you have early memories of the ICT industry in Australia? Help us make history by sending us your story! Record or write your memories to be included in our historic ACS Heritage Project. Details here.