Sydney Uni celebrates half century for first university computer

The University of Sydney is planning to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the building of the first high-speed computer in an Australian university.

The computer is known as Silliac and pioneers of that era will take part in the Computing the Future Symposium to be held on September 13, 2006.

Professor Albert Zomaya, head of the IT School at the University of Sydney, said it will be a milestone attended by eminent researchers and international guest speakers.

There from the very beginning were the Silliac pioneers, including Barry de Ferranti who is the chairman of the Silliac Fiftieth Celebrations Organizing Committee.

"When you think of how far things have come in the world of computing - it is amazing to think it has only been 50 years! I feel privileged to be part of the story. The University of Sydney was the first university in Australia to have a computing science department - and I now get to see the amazing things being done in the areas such as robotics, pervasive computing, health informatics, grid computing and optics," de Ferranti said.

It all began with a (pre-decimal currency) £100,000 donation from Sir Adolph Basser to the then Nuclear Research Foundation, founded by Emeritus Professor Harry Messel.

The grant was to enable the Australian version of the University of Illinois' Illiac to be built.

The computer was constructed in the School of Physics and at Standard Telephones and Cables Pty Ltd (now Alcatel Australia), with the first successful scientific calculation on the machine performed on July 4, 1956. It officially opened on September 12, 1956.

By 1961 a computing science department was created within the School of Physics.

In 1979 the Department of Computer Science separated from the School of Physics and in 2001, the Department of Computer Science was renamed the School of Information Technologies.

One of the professors, who has been with the School since 1977, is Associate Professor Judy Kay.

She can recall the names of many successful alumni, including David Skellern, now chief executive officer of NICTA, who is speaking at the symposium; Vaughan Pratt who was one of the founders of Sun Microsystems and is now Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Stanford University and John Cameron, CEO of Cameron Systems who was a member of the original team that wrote SEATS, the automated trading system, used by the Australian Stock Exchange.

On the day of the symposium, the new $43 million, purpose-built computer science school will be officially opened.

Speakers scheduled for the event include the former CEO of the Commonwealth Bank, David Murray, one of the four founders of 3Com Howard Charney, and general manager of IBM's pharmaceutical and life sciences unit, Dr Caroline Kovac.

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