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CSIRAC – Australia’s first computer

Australia’s first computer, CSIR Mark I (later called CSIRAC, the CSIR Automatic Computer), was Australia’s first programmable digital computer, and only the fourth computer in the world. It was built in the late 1940s by scientists Dr Trevor Pearcey, Mr Maston Beard and Mr Geoff Hill and filled a room the size of a double garage. While it required enough electricity to power a suburban street, it had only a fraction of the brainpower of the cheapest modern electronic organiser. But it was a technological marvel of its time. 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.

CSIRAC ran its first program late in November 1949. Once fully operational, CSIRAC was a thousand times faster than anything else available in Australia at the time and revolutionised everything from weather forecasting to banking. It even played what is thought to be the first ever computer music, Colonel Bogey, to an international audience during Australia’s first computer conference in June 1951.

Improvements were steadily made to the computer in the early 1950s at the Radiophysics Laboratory in Sydney and it provided a computing service to all of CSIRO from 1951 to 1955. In 1956 the improved CSIRAC Mark II was dismantled, loaded on trucks and driven down the Hume Highway to the University of Melbourne where it continued to provide a computing service until 1964. Over its 14-year lifetime CSIRAC processed more than 1000 projects. It is now on display at Melbourne Museum and is the world’s oldest existing stored program electronic computer.

For a detailed account of the CSIRAC story read: Museum Victoria Australia, CSIRAC ‘ Australia’s first computer [external link]