Dr Robert Bell: Creating computing connections

Most of us take computers for granted. But some of us, in particular, Dr Robert Bell, are fortunate enough to have seen the incredible development of computers over the past 50 years and play a part in their history, growth and usability.

From humble beginnings in 1967 as a vacation student at our Division of Meteorological Physics, Robert’s career has journeyed through various roles at CSIRO over a stellar 50-year career.

At our Division of Atmospheric Research, Robert was fortunate enough to work alongside Jorgen Frederiksen, internationally-recognised atmospheric research scientist, where he was involved in programming various computer models of the ocean and atmosphere, and later managing their computing group.

Finding his niche

One of the challenges Robert faced during his career was finding his niche. After a few years working in research, he found that support services was where his passions lay.  While he was fascinated by the computational side of work and admits to being easily distracted, he noticed that his colleagues were good scientists but could benefit from help on the computing side. Through this observation he developed very productive partnerships with the scientists, translating ideas into programs.

“I am driven to provide services for science, particularly in computing and storage services, and in user support, having been a user myself of such services in the past.” Robert says.

With the added knowledge and experience from working as a researcher, Robert had the advantage of understanding of what drives the user and was able to provide more informed solutions for the scientists.

He had to convince management of the importance of providing good computing, storage and support facilities, while not crippling them with inappropriate funding schemes.  His team came up with a successful share scheme in the early 1990s.

Later, Robert became Technical Services Manager for our Advanced Scientific Computing area, based in the Bureau of Meteorology’s Head Office building in Docklands in Melbourne right up until 2013-14 where he was the acting Pawsey Supercomputing Centre HPC Architect and responsible for the administration of our HPC National Partnerships.

Growing the taskforce

In addition to Robert’s formal roles here at CSIRO, he also wrote a series of anonymous columns for the CSIROnet News.

CSIROnet was one of the earliest computer networks, established by Dr Trevor Pearcey in 1963.  The CSIRONET network mainly catered to the needs of CSIRO and scientists on campus who were engaged in research. By the mid-1970s, it had connected more than 50 computers with more than 250 terminals around Australia.

Robert enjoyed the freedom to write candid articles for the CSIROnet news on what was working and what wasn’t as well as investigate the issues of where computing was going.

When CSIROnet was sold, Robert was part of the Supercomputer Facilities Task Force which paved the way for a new supercomputer system for CSIRO in Melbourne in 1990. This was the shared central machine used to work on large projects for science users.

The task force drew up the basic requirements and asked for expressions of interest to provide systems and services.  In the end a joint proposal from Cray Research and an Australian company called Leading Edge Technologies was accepted, leading to CSIRO’s first Cray supercomputer.

After deciding on the new system, there needed to be a support group to support users and shape the service with the provider. The group was set up within the Division of Information Technology and included 4 staff. This has now grown into IMT Scientific Computing Services with around 40 staff.

Recognising our computing pioneers

Since retiring, Robert has taken up a CSIRO Retirement Fellowship. With 59 publications to his name, Robert has been documenting the History of Computing, working alongside Barbara Ainsworth, Curator of Monash Museum of Computing History.

In researching computer history, and looking back on his own accomplishments, Robert reflects on how we should celebrate these pioneers who recognised the importance of scientific computation.

Their work demonstrated the benefits of collaboration, developed interactive access, laid down principles for resource allocation, showed the benefits of shared systems, pioneered computer networks and established storage services. Much of what they created is now taken for granted as it has been carried over into the systems, software, services, support and storage we use today.