Australia’s significant Computing Legacy: Helping to Connect the World

by Michael D’Rosario,
School of Accounting, Economics and Finance, Deakin University

The closure of the Museum of IT at the University of Queensland earlier this year was a timely reminder of why we should reflect on Australia’s significant legacy in computing. The closure will result in many computing artefacts of historical importance no longer having a vestibule for display, though many of the best pieces will likely make their way into other museums around the country. In some respects the museum’s closure provides evidence of the lack of support for, and understanding of, this remarkable legacy. Moreover, it mirrors the general apathy observed in relation to debates about our informational architectures. It is equally timely to reflect on this significant legacy in computing in light of recent debate over the future of computing within Australia and most notably the NBN (national broadband network). While many argue that a nation such as Australia has little need for such leading technologies within its communications architectures, few, perhaps, are aware of the fact that in bygone eras Australia was at the cutting edge of many areas of computing and communications.

Australians are a truly ingenious population of people; a nation full of innovators and inventors. This inventive propensity may be, as the old axiom suggests, ‘a function of necessity’. I would proffer that Australia’s significant contribution to information and communications technologies is amongst our best kept secrets. The contribution of our sector to global progress in computing and communications technologies during the postwar period is nothing short of spectacular. Indeed, the compelling performance of our relatively small sector over a 60 year period between 1940 and 2000 would embolden even the most technophobic political party to pursue a mandate to invest in ICT locally. While some decry the lack of ICT research and development within our polity at present, few could argue with the remarkable legacy of the Australian ICT sector. Herein the Australian contribution to general computing and communications technologies is considered.

Our sector is best described as punching ‘well above its weight’. While the ICT sector was relatively underfunded during the postwar period, in comparison to the burgeoning sectors evidenced in the US, UK and continental Europe, it remained proficient and sophisticated notwithstanding the relative dearth of funding. Developed in Germany in 1941, the first general computing device – Zuse 3 – was an electro-mechanical device that operated with a programmed film base stock. Later came the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (1942), the first such device in the United States, a non-programmable computing device. The Colossus Mark I was then released in the United Kingdom two years later.

A mere 8 years after the deployment of the first major general computing device, Zuse 3, came Australia’s first major general computing device, and the first device of its type in the southern hemisphere. At the time of its release, CSIRAC was amongst the most advanced computing devices in the world. This computer was amongst the first to incorporate the mercury-based delay line memory system, a pathbreaking memory system whereby information was transmitted into memory cylinders filled with mercury, through pulses of sound. As such, Australia is recognised amongst the first handful of countries to deploy a high level general computing device. It should be acknowledged that every MP3 Player has a little bit of CSIRAC in its core, with CSIRAC being the first computing device to play music, and specifically music in digital format. This was a pertinent application for such a device, and while it would be a further quarter of a century before a personal computing device would be able to replicate this feat, the CSIRAC application provided a worthwhile proof of concept.

Arguably the most significant contribution of the Australian ICT sector to computing and general communications technologies is the advent of the ubiquitous WiFi technology. The third generation technologies that drive commerce and communication at present in the developed and developing world and the fourth generation technologies being deployed within advanced economies owe much to the research conducted within Australia during the early 1990s. While the advent of antecedent technologies such as WaveLan represented key milestones in computing and communications, it was the work of the CSIRO that made high-speed data transmission over reasonable distances viable. WiFi enabled the efficient deployment of Local Area Networks with internet connectivity without the need for wiring. The majority of the approximately 160 million computers sold thus far this year, incorporate WiFi capabilities.

The CSIRO registered their patent in the technology in 1992. The peak research body then displayed the first wireless Local Area Network internet connection in 2000. This was a significant milestone in computing, enabling far greater data transfer than WaveLan, ZigBee and data transfer over greater distance than the equally ubiquitous Bluetooth technology. The technology developed by the CSIRO now has become the default standard within computing devices and smart phones. It is deployed as commonly within households as commercial settings, and the impact of this key discovery on productivity is immeasurable. Though the words revolutionary and magical are thrown around far too commonly at present, they seem somewhat fitting when describing the ever-present WiFi, and the work of those path-defining researchers. While we have begun the exploration of next generation technologies such as WiMax and LTE, much is owed to the CSIRO team and their revolutionary technology. When considering the role of ICT in our economy and the potential of Australian ICT research and development it might pay for policymakers to reflect on the remarkable legacy of CSIRAC and the paradigm shifting WiFi. Equally pertinent are the new innovators, firms such as Atlassian, who are changing the way the sector operates, and generating new interest in the Australian computing sector.

Moreover, it may be of particular worth to our political leaders to reflect on the contribution of Australian researchers and innovators to modern computing when considering who can best shape our information architectures. While there may be little consensus about a roadmap for the future in relation to communications architectures such as the conjectured national broadband network, one thing is quite certain: apathy and indolence will stifle innovation and creativity. An unfortunate consequence of this inertia may well be that the former ‘golden era’ of computing might survive as little more than a faint memory of what was once an ‘innovative’ country.

© APH Network and contributors 2010. All rights reserved.

Michael D’Rosario, Australia’s significant Computing Legacy: Helping to Connect the World. Australian Policy and History. November 2010.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/australias-significant-computing-legacy

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