Historians argue as to which machines were pivotal in launching the industrial revolution.
In the ICT world, the task is much easier.
The first stored-program electronic computers, which launched the digital age in the late 1940s, were few and are well-documented.
Only one still exists intact, and you can see it in Melbourne.
After World War II, the race to build the first stored-program electronic computer was won in mid-1948, by a team at Manchester University. By mid-1949, another machine, EDSAC, was working at Cambridge.
Development of a computer (more advanced in some ways than the British ones) was also underway in Australia, at the CSIR Radiophysics Laboratory in Sydney.
The CSIR team was headed by designer Trevor Pearcey and engineer Maston Beard.
By November 1949 their CSIR Mark1 was executing stored programs.
It was pipped at the post in this by the US BINAC.
However, while BINAC was never fully functional, the Australian machine was so well-designed and constructed that it went on to have a working life of 15 years – well into the time of transistorised computers.
So, Australia had the fourth stored-program computer.
While in Sydney, the CSIR Mark1 was used for research purposes. It was also programmed to play music – now recognised as the first computer generated music in the world. However, by 1954 there were plans to build Australia’s second computer SILLIAC in Sydney.
So, in 1955, still the only computer in Australia, it was loaded onto a semi-trailer under a tarpaulin and driven south to its new home in a specially established Computation Laboratory at the University of Melbourne.
Renamed CSIRAC, it provided the first computing bureau in Australia and was used to teach programming and for numerous research projects. Early numerical weather forecasts were completed on the machine.
CSIRAC was used to design high-rise buildings and the state electricity network. Scientists, engineers, banks and other organisations made use of it.
More music was programmed and early computer games were a feature.
Remarkably, one of the first high level languages Interprogram was also developed: all this with less than 3Kbytes of storage and execution speeds of about 0.001 MHz!
By the time CSIRAC was turned off in 1964, it was already recognised as a heritage item. It was transferred to the Institute of Applied Science – a forerunner of Museum Victoria.
In 1996, a team at the University of Melbourne initiated a project to retrieve CSIRAC from the museum store, reassemble it, document its history and prepare it for display. This project entailed close collaboration between Museum Victoria and university staff and a host of volunteers.
The Museum’s CSIRAC collection now includes the original software library, the original schematics and many items donated by the pioneers who tended and programmed it throughout its long working life. The university team also re-created the original, computer generated-music, regarded as the first ever produced by a computer.
CSIRAC has been granted heritage status by Heritage Victoria and by Engineers Australia. It is recognised, internationally, as an item of great significance.
The pioneering achievements of Pearcey and his team are honoured by the Pearcey Foundation which annually confers the prestigious Pearcey Medal, and other awards which acknowledge our capability and achievements in ICT.
ACS supported the original project to resurrect CSIRAC and the publication of a book The Last of the First, and recognises CSIRAC as a tangible symbol of our longstanding and continuing professionalism in the ICT field.
This year CSIRAC will feature in the ABC Boyer Lecture Series.
In the UK, dedicated enthusiasts have spent years building replicas of the earliest British computers, which were dismantled long ago.
In Melbourne you can see the original, entirely Australian built, computer intact.
CSIRAC is the last survivor of the handful of machines that launched the modern age, and a permanent reminder that Australia entered the Information Age at the very beginning.