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From the website From Wireless To Web.
Video clip synopsis – The story of the CSIRAC computer. Designed and constructed by the CSIRO, it was the first fully automatic electronic digital computer.
Year of production - 1949
Duration - 3min 59sec
Tags - design, emerging technologies, innovation, technology, technology and society, see all tags


The CSIRAC Computer

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Additional help.

About the Video Clip


The video clip is used courtesy of the CSIRO and is also found on the website From Wireless to Web, produced in 2005.

The website is a selective history of broadcast media in Australia. Decade by decade, from radio and newsreels to TV and the internet, this history shows how the Australian broadcast media developed and shaped the way Australians see themselves.

From Wireless to Web is a Film Australia production in association with Roar Film.

Curriculum Focus


This Digital Resource can be used to achieve some of outcomes of the NSW Stage 4 Technology (Mandatory) syllabus; specifically the following outcomes:
4.1.2: describes factors influencing design in the areas of study of Built Environments, Products, and Information and Communications.
4.4.1: explains the impact of innovation and emerging technologies on society and the environment.
4.6.2: identifies and explains ethical, social, environmental and sustainability considerations related to design projects.

This material is an extract. Teachers and students should consult the Board of Studies website for more information.

Background Information


Australia’s first computer was so big that it filled a room the size of a double garage and looked like a set of old grey-metal gym lockers, stuffed with racks of valves, wires, vacuum tubes and electronic switches. At the time people referred to it as a 'supercomputer’, even though it had only a fraction of the processing power of a cheap, modern electronic organiser. (Johnson)

CSIR Mk1 – built in 1949 by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (today known as the CSIRO – Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) – was only the fourth electronic stored program computer in the world. It weighed several tonnes, and sucked enough electricity to power a small suburb. CSIR Mk1 ran at 0.001 megahertz, with 2000 bytes of memory and 2500 bytes of storage. By comparison, a typical desktop PC today will have a processing speed of at least 2000 megahertz, with 512 megabytes (512,000,000 bytes) of memory and 40 gigabytes (40,000,000,000 bytes) of storage. (Johnson)

In 1956 the computer was moved to the University of Melbourne, where it was retitled CSIRAC. It calculated over 700 computing projects before it was decommissioned in 1964. (Pass)

At the time, CSIRAC revolutionised the tedious job of performing mathematical calculations using a hand-cranked or mechanical calculator. In one hour CSIRAC could do the amount of work that had previously taken twenty people a full week. CSIRAC’s computational powers were used by scientists working on everything from weather forecasting and the design of skyscrapers to the mysteries of the cosmos. And this early 'supercomputer’ helped engineers to analyse the flow of rivers for the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme. (Johnson)

CSIRAC earned a special place in the history of digital technology because it was reputed to be the first computer in the world to play computer music. CSIRAC’s first programmer, Geoff Hill, came from a musical family. Exploring the possibilities of programming, Hill created music programs – software stored on hand-punched paper tapes – that instructed CSIRAC to 'beep’ popular melodies that were relayed through a loudspeaker. This playful use of the 'supercomputer’ has since been described as the starting point of 'multimedia’. (Johnson)

Classroom Activities

  1. CSIRAC (pronounced ‘sigh-rack’) was the fourth computer in the world to be built. It is also the only intact first-generation computer surviving anywhere in the world and is on display in Museum Victoria. From CSIR Mk1’s inception at the Radiophysics Laboratory of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and then later as CSIRAC at Melbourne University’s Computation Laboratory it’s importance to the growth of an IT industry in Australia is central. Hill and Cherry’s creative use of a computer also signalled the birth of multimedia as we know it, though it was nearly 50 before we saw the advent of online music stores such as iTunes
    Trevor Pearcey and Maston Beard led the team that created CSIR MkI, whilst Geoff Hill and Thomas Cherry were integral to the development of CSIRAC’s musical capabilities. Select one of these influential Australians and present a small biography about that person.
  2. Professor Thomas Cherry programmed CSIRAC to perform music. He also developed a system and program such that anyone who understood standard musical notation could create a punched paper data tape for CSIRAC to perform that music. (See Cherry’s instructions at Museum Victoria)
    Cherry’s music program involved the translation of musical notes and their properties (pitch, duration and tempo) into sets of numbers so that CSIRAC could read, interpret and present simple musical tones. Explain the similarity and differences between this and midi files of today.
  3. Since 1916 the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) has been the national research agency of the Australian Government. It undertakes scientific research for the purpose of assisting Australian industry, furthering the interests of the Australian community and contributing to the achievement of national objectives. Explain how the development of CSIR Mk 1 / CSIRAC fulfilled this role.
  4. Alan Turing was an English mathematician, logician, and cryptographer. Turing is often considered to be the father of modern computer science as he was one of the first to create designs for a stored-program computer as well as developing software for the Manchester Mark I. After the war, scientists and engineers developed Turing’s concept into the idea of a stored-program computer. Between 1948 and 1950 saw seven independently developed ‘all-electronic digital computers’ run their first test programs. This occurred across three different countries. (UK, USA and Australia). What social and technical factors can explain this ‘critical mass’ of scientific development?

Further Resources


Go to From Wireless to Web for more about the history of broadcast media in Australia.

Go to CSIRAC From the Computation Laboratory at the University of Melbourne’s Dept of Computer Science and Software Engineering.

Go to CSIRAC, Australia’s first computer (Museum Victoria’s CSIRAC information site)