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 11: The Australian Computer Society
The first computer association formed in Australia was the Australian National Committee on Computation and Automatic Control (ANCCAC). It came into being in the late 1950s out of a perceived need to have an umbrella organisation to run computer conferences.
There had been two major computer conferences in Australia by this time – one at Sydney University (one of the first in the world) in 1951 and another at the Weapons Research Establishment in South Australia in 1957.
It was obvious there would be more, and at a meeting between computer groups at Sydney University and the University of NSW in late 1957, a working party led by John Bennett was formed to discuss the possibility of forming some sort of Australian grouping to organise further conferences.
They concluded that it was too early to think about a formal computer society, but that the best way forward was to approach a number of Australia’s existing professional societies to form a committee on computers and automatic controllers.
At Bennett’s instigation, a meeting was held in Sydney on 15 July 1958, attended by leading figures from the Institution of Engineers Australia, the Australian Institute of Managers, the Actuarial Society of Australasia, the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, the Australasian Institute of Cost Accountants, the Institute of Physics, and the Statistical Society of NSW.
They recommended that their organisations form a national committee on computing, along with the Australian Society of Accountants and the Institute of Chartered Accounts in Australia.
The name ANCCAC was adopted at a second meeting on 24 October 1958 and the committee formally inaugurated on 10 April 1959, with John Bennett as Chairman-Convenor and Max Dillon as his deputy.
The member societies hoped to “advance the design, development, construction, and application of automatic computing machinery and associated techniques; facilitate exchange of information and views in the best scientific tradition and foster the spread of knowledge; gather films and literature on the subject; and arrange conferences and symposia from time to time.”
ANCACC’s first computer conference, the third to be held in Australia, was held jointly at Sydney University and the University of NSW on 24-27 May 1960. The growth in interest since the 1957 conference at the WRE was apparent, with the 150 papers presented and the attendance of over 650 delegates.
In an indication of computing’s expansion into private industry, most delegates expressed an interest in the commercial aspects of computing.
Another important early role for ANCCAC was its membership of the new International Federation of Information Processing (IFIP), which was established in in 1960 under the auspices of UNESCO, following the first World Computer Congress in Paris in 1959.
IFIP was established as a non-governmental, non-profit umbrella organisation for national societies working in the field of information processing. ANCCAC was the only such body in Australia, and joined IFIP on 1 January 1992 (ANCCAC subsequently transferred its membership to the ACS).
John Bennet was appointed ANCCAC representative to the IFIP Standards Committee.
ANCCAC organised its second conference in Melbourne in February 1963, which attracted over 900 delegates, and its third in Canberra in May 1966, which was attended by a similar number.
By this time a number of state computer societies had been formed. Discussions began about forming a national body. On 26 July 1962 an informal meeting between the Victorian Computer Society and ANCCAC was called to discuss moving the small ANCCAC secretariat into the VCS’s larger offices, but talk soon turned to the possibility of forming a true national computer society.
That was to happen, but not for another three and a half years.
All the state groups saw the merit in having a national body, but they did not agree on the best ways of achieving this. Australia is a big country and communication was not as easy then as it is now. Even interstate phone calls were expensive, and most negotiations had to be carried out by post and by occasional interstate travel, which was also expensive and usually only happened as an adjunct to other business.
Negotiations began in earnest at the February 1963 ANCCAC Conference in Melbourne. By this time there were computer societies in South Australia, Victoria and Queensland. In August 1963, a draft national constitution was produced by the Victorian Computer Society, just as the NSW Computer Society was being formed.
Then began “a debate reminiscent of that which attended the formation of the Australian Commonwealth” (in the 1890s).
Victoria argued for a strong national body, largely based on an extension of its own role, while NSW argued for strong state branches with a less powerful federal body, whose powers should be confined solely to national matters and national assets, binding the state associations together only to the extent necessary to provide national representation.
There were arguments about fees. What proportion of membership dues would be payable to the state and what proportion to the national body? There were arguments about voting rights – would each state have an equal vote, or would they be in proportion to membership? There were arguments about the ownership of assets – would these be owned by the state or national bodies?
In many ways it was classic Sydney versus Melbourne confrontation. In October 1963 the NSW Computer Society sent a revised draft constitution, largely written by committee member Bob Rutledge, who was later to be President of both the ACS and its NSW Branch, to the VSCS for comment. In May 1964 the VCS produced another draft, which was countered with yet a further draft by the NCS, which was sent to the smaller societies in South Australia and Queensland for comment.
And so it went, backwards and forwards, draft after draft. Then on 25 February 1965 a meeting was held at the University of Melbourne Computer Department with senior office bearers of the NSW and Victorian Societies, to nut out the differences between the two largest states. Debated raged on until after midnight, but a general agreement was reached on proportional representation.
More drafts of a national constitution followed, but the disagreements were essentially minor and were all resolved over the next few months. Representatives of all the state societies except South Australia (which had agreed to abide by all decisions made) met, appropriately, in Canberra on 20 October 1965 and adopted the ninth draft of the prolonged negotiations as the constitution of the new Australian Computer Society.
The ACS came into existence on 1 January 1966, though it was not formally incorporated until October 1967. The individual state societies became branches of the national body, though with a large degree of autonomy – the ACS was to be very much a federated organisation. Further branches were to be formed in Western Australia (March 1967), Tasmania (July 1975) and the Northern Territory (November 1983).
ANCCAC turned over its conference to the ACS after its successful 1966 event, handed all its assets to the ACS (to be used for purposes that ANCCAC had pursued), and dissolved itself.
Australia had a national 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 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.