Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

CSIRAC, c. 1949-64. Col­lec­tion Mu­seum Vic­to­ria. On dis­play, Mel­bourne Mu­seum. The Os­car-win­ning film The Im­i­ta­tion Game might have de­picted the real-life ex­ploits of Bri­tish math­e­ma­ti­cian Alan Tur­ing, who helped de­crypt the Ger­man Enigma code dur­ing World War II, but the film didn’t elab­o­rate on what is con­sid­ered his great­est legacy.

In 1936, Tur­ing pub­lished On Com­putable Num­bers, With an Ap­pli­ca­tion to the Entschei­dungsprob­lem, deemed the most in­flu­en­tial doc­u­ment of the com­puter age. With this he laid the foun­da­tions for the mod­ern com­puter, for soft­ware and for ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. He de­fined the no­tion of a mod­ern com­puter as a flex­i­ble, pro­gram­mable uni­ver­sal ma­chine; a ma­chine that could com­pute any­thing that a hu­man could, but faster.

Based on Tur­ing’s the­o­ries, and us­ing tech­nol­ogy from wartime radar sys­tems, be­tween 1947 and 1949 a group of en­ter­pris­ing Aus­tralian sci­en­tists and engi­neers built this coun­try’s first dig­i­tal com­puter, the fourth built in the world. It is con­sid­ered one of Aus­tralia’s fore­most tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ments.

Most sur­pris­ing, how­ever, is that this com­puter still sur­vives. It is now the world’s only re­main­ing in­tact first-gen­er­a­tion com­puter and it is on dis­play at the Mel­bourne Mu­seum.

Named CSIRAC (pro­nounced sigh-rack), it was de­signed and built by Trevor Pearcey, Mas­ton Beard and Ge­off Hill at the CSIRO’s Ra­dio­physics Lab­o­ra­tory in Syd­ney be­fore it was moved to the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne.

CSIRAC filled a room the size of a dou­ble garage and re­quired enough elec­tric­ity to power a sub­ur­ban street. It might have been prim­i­tive com­pared to to­day’s com­put­ers but it

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