UTECOM supercomputer celebrates 50 years, programmer reminisces

When the 1.2 tonne, $149,000 (£60,000) DEUCE II computer was officially opened on September 11 1956, it was heralded as one of the first three computers in Australia and was quickly put to use as what the newspapers of the day called the £50 an hour "super-brain".

The computer, dubbed UTECOM, was built in England, then dismantled and shipped to Australia. Measuring an impressive four metres wide, one metre deep and two metres tall, it took three months to install in a designated room at what was then the NSW University of Technology.

Reflecting on how far computing has come since those days, ex-UTECOM programmer John Webster, now of the Australian Computer Museum Society, reminisces about the past 50 years of computing in Australia and his involvement with "super-brain".

How have you been involved with computing in Australia?

UTECOM [the University of Technology Electronic COMputer] was started in 1956 and I started there in mid-1960 and worked on that until it closed down [and was dismantled] at the end of 1966. IBM and its new System 360/50 replaced it. I'm in the Australian Computer Museum Society and our aim is to preserve whatever we can that's related to the Australian History of computing. We've got a lot of old equipment in our warehouse. Most of the machines they've got at the university here that haven't been thrown out are things we'd like to see preserved.

Other, less tangible aims, is to try, in a couple of years, to get together with the Australian Computer Society to contact the people in Australia who worked with computers then - and they may just have been people behind the desk who used computers -to find where they worked, how they were trained, what they did, what the machines meant for them, what it meant for their families. I think it's fairly important.

We're also trying to judge what the Australian cultural outlook is about computers, and the effect on our lives. They affect almost our mental development, our outlook towards developing products.

How do you think computers have affected Australian society?

Surely it's a type of industrial revolution on its own. There were a number of people who spent their lives doing calculations using little machines: mechanical calculators. All vanished very quickly once computers came. You could do years of work in only a couple of hours, even in the 1950s and 60s. Now, computers are billions of times cheaper and faster too.

What was computing like in the 1950s and 60s?

A lot of the staff at the UTECOM computer were about to leave to go work for Remington Rand and their Univac computer. Our two major engineers on UTECOM went; a couple of other heavies went. I was a first-year student in 1960, trying to become a lecturer in mathematics of all things. About mid-year, they said to me, "How would you like to work on a computer, on the university's computer?" And being a 16-year-old kid - and they owned my scholarship - I thought they meant, "We'd like you to work on our computer". The next question was "What do you know about computers?" and I said, "C-O-M-P-U-T-E-R". That was it.

The following week I was led down to the computer, and essentially I was expected to learn the machine code - the machine instructions that drive the machine. And Ron Smart and [colleagues] had so little time to spare that I was hunting around for someone to help me get more complicated instructions. So I went to the engineers, and they gave me logic diagrams that showed how the bits flow through the machines, to show what happens when they go through addition, subtraction and all that. And by doing that, I learnt the machine instructions so well that within a few months of arriving, we suddenly had a very large clientele. A lot of programming was done in machine language.

It was very exciting.

These days, kids who play games and try to discover cheats, develop smart bits of software - and you could probably include hackers in there - are probably somewhat similar-minded. We have the same style of excitement. I found nothing better than having some two-tonne item sitting on the concrete floor, getting it to do what I want. It gave me a bit of a high. Of course, all I was doing was crunching numbers and re-arranging data.

The Australian Computer Museum Society's booklet on UTECOM mentions that at that time in the 50s, "almost all computers were still women operating calculators". Was this what the industry was like?

I know in the early days of the electrically operated punch-card machines, the use of card drivers - women were probably used for that. I believe women are better typists than men on average, that's just from my personal experience. Women were core computer operators in those days. A lot of women were doing computing - of course the Second World War was important.

One of the guys over in England [whom] I communicated with was upset because when he registered his occupation as "Computer Programmer" following his marriage to one of his co-workers, [the register office for marriages] would not allow that. They put him down as "Production Clerk", because there was no registered job title as computer programmer. Her job title was "Computer", and they allowed that, because they'd heard of a computer, but they hadn't heard of computer programmers. This would have been just after the War.

In those days, someone who was very useful in computing was so valuable, though, of course, they'd have to be skilled as well as trained.

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