Australia’s first computer sits hidden in a basement – what a squandered opportunity

DSC_0084Australia’s first computer sits hidden in a Melbourne basement.

CSIRAC (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Automatic Computer) was Australia’s first digital computer, and the fifth stored-program computer in the world. It was the first computer in the World to play digital music. It is now the oldest surviving first-generation electronic computer anywhere. You cannot call yourself a geek and not find that cool. But do you know where it is?

On a rainy day in Melbourne (although that probably doesn’t make the day stand out from any other day in Melbourne – it was last Thursday) I took my iAwards teams to hunt down CSIRAC. Now I knew it was in the Melbourne Museum, which, given our only reason for visiting was to see CSIRAC, turned out to be a serendipitously good museum with some excellent displays.

I assumed, wrongly, that something as significant as CSIRAC would be easy to find. After all, it’s a pretty amazing piece of history for Australia and for the World – it’s the oldest surviving first generation computer in the World, and that’s wonderful. CSIRAC represents Australia being only the third country in the World to have a digital computer (after the UK and USA). If you want a piece of history that’s material to our lives today how much more significant is CSIRAC than a stuffed wombat (stuffed animals were easy to find in the Museum)?

The Melbourne Museum’s map doesn’t have CSIRAC listed so we wandered about blindly looking for signs. My credibility was diving by the moment as the students decided I’d walked them through the rain to the wrong museum. Finally we asked someone, who explained we need to go back to the front door and look under the escalators.

It turns out that CSIRAC sits lonely and forlornly in the basement.  There is the world’s oldest surviving computer sitting beside a car and two plastic chairs in front of a TV. There’s little context, labeling, or anything to put real perspective on how significant CSIRAC is. It really is sad.

The Museum Wikipedia page doesn’t mention CSIRAC – because people are obviously going to be more interested in the mounted hide of a depression-era racehorse. To be fair, the Museum’s website does list CSIRAC as an exhibit; but the comments on that page, stretching back many years, reveal we were not alone in finding it hard or impossible to find:

I spent the afternoon at Melbourne museum and could not find the CSIRAC valve computer….Where is housed? Regards Richard

CSIRAC for me is one of the most interesting and important exhibits in the museum. I too was dismayed to see it relegated to such an obscure place.

What really could be more pertinent to a bunch of iPhone-wielding museum visitors than a view of one of the first computers and some perspective on how it led to the advances we luxuriate in today. There’s an opportunity to use CSIRAC to explain how computers have developed and how coding works – and it beggars belief that the Museum couldn’t attract industry funding at the moment for something like that. This is simply an incredible opportunity that’s being squandered by the Melbourne Museum.

Even outside of the opportunity going begging, it’s just sad to see such an iconic piece of engineering sitting unloved in the basement. If you are a geek going to Melbourne, though, seek out CSIRAC and take a look at this unique piece of computing history.

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