Monday, 26 October 2015

The History of Computing in Melbourne Tour

The tour of Melbourne's computer history is, as you might imagine, a specialist tour. I was, therefore, a little nervous before taking it that I might come over as an IT imbecile who possesses superficial background knowledge, asks dumb questions and proves unable to grasp even the most elementary points. I needn't have been. My guide Chris was not out to impress me with his knowledge and use it as a stick to beat me with, he was keener to share it and so, when necessary (i.e. most of the time), translated it into layman's terms. We began informally in a cafe where I joined him taking coffee with two old Macedonian friends of his, a weekly ritual of theirs. I learnt something of modern Greek history and the reasons for their departure and emigration to Melbourne, but more to the point, I dropped in on three old friends happy to welcome me into their day to day life. Melbourne's standard of coffee is said to be very high and whilst my cappuccino was not otherworldly, it was very satisfying and went some way towards countering the fog of jet-lag and lack of sleep I was fighting through, seeing as I'd literally stepped of a plane a few hours earlier. This was, most certainly, a soft landing that, together with the warm, spring sunshine dancing over the trees, made this feel like a city with possibility.

I said goodbye to my two new acquaintances, finished up my coffee and was taken for a short spin around Queen Victoria Market. With no word about computers, we strolled through taking in the spectacle. Markets, particularly working markets that cater for the residents as opposed to tourist markets selling souvenirs and food at inflated prices, are quite addictive. They are similar enough around the world that you can make comparisons with markets you are familiar with and different enough to make such comparisons interesting. In this case I was looking for unusual vegetables and did indeed spot a light green flattened ball about the size of a fist that the vendor said tasted like carrot. He was an older gentleman who looked to be of Chinese descent but spoke with a relaxed Aussie accent and Chris told me there were a significant number of Chinese who came over with the goldrush of the 1850s and who have made Australia their home ever since. What was, on paper, a history of computing tour was turning out to be a far broader Melbourne history 101 class.

Over a very tasty and reasonably priced Greek spinach pie with pumpkin and beetroot salad, we talked about his role at Monash University and then got onto the bread and butter of the tour: the role the city played in the development of the modern computer.

We stopped outside the Royal Exhibition building to learn about the automated machines used for the 1921 census and also looked at a statue that spoke of the Victoria/New South Wales rivalry, which I suppose must still exist. It is a good thing that Chris, my guide, is careful about his appearance; with longer hair he could easily look the part of the mad professor but, as it was, he looked and sounded every bit the part of the serious, retired professor passionate about ideas and engaged with the wider society. He was, then, the expert guide who could go a lot deeper into any of the things he was talking about rather than the blagger guide, i.e. someone reading from a script and trying to succeed on charm alone.

Next stop was Melbourne Museum to take a look at CSIRAC, the world's oldest and only fully intact, first generation computer. It is a huge, metallic hulk of a machine that was state of the art when switched on for the first time in 1949. I listened to Chris talking about how it functioned and watched a period film of it in action, which included an excerpt of the world's first ever piece of computer generated music. Together, this enthusiastic commentary and video transformed this 7-ton lump of metal parked in front of me from a cold-war dinosaur into an important and innovative technical achievement. This is the sort of exhibit that absolutely requires contextualising like this for its true value to become evident, seeing as it was not made for its appearance, doesn't feature interactive games and has no celebrity angle to exploit. 

These are the computer's programmes. I recall, from the accompanying video, that entering them onto CSIRAC was not such a simple procedure. No Apple Store to connect to back then! Chris explained how the memory was held in long mercury filled rods, which we could view from the side. These were a technology imported from radar, and this helped me see how innovations in one field were sometimes passed around providing solutions in another, albeit temporary ones until more specialised technology for the task was developed. This set me off on the inevitable Alan Turing line of enquiry which, I was pleased to learn, was not a completely irrelevant one. It seems as is automating code breaking was important in the development of computers, indeed Melbourne also had a significant role to play here with the military intelligence unit FRUMEL based in the city and working in this field of cryptanalysis. What's more, I learnt that some of the war-time coding techniques and hardware were kept secret for many decades more as they were still of strategic value during the period of decolonisation and independence. In other words, GCHQ was spying on former British colonies, what a shock! CSIRAC seemed to be used for different purposes, however, and I got the impression it represented an early, heroic period in the history of computing when Melbourne was at the forefront of this emerging and powerful technology.

The tour meandered through the city and opposite Federation Square I learnt that this tour has a cousin of sorts: Made by Maths an app that shows the mathematics underpinning key landmarks and buildings in Melbourne. I'm guessing it probably started out as a tour like this one too, and has now moved onto a digital platform. The pattern on the facade of this building, I was told, was made to not repeat itself and required some rather serious mathematics (and computers no doubt) in order to achieve this. I think that these sorts of tours that make a specialist subject accessible to a broad public by making the city itself visible through an unfamiliar frame of reference are tremendously valuable. Most typically, tours that operate within the tourist industry use a format that is immediately recognisable such as, lets say, a historic walking tour, which can then be applied to any given environment. The names and places may change but the experience is more or less the same wherever you go. Tours that approach the city through different specialisms, however, have the potential to step outside of these familiar narratives conveying both new ideas and points of view to the listener and, at the same time, still telling them something about the location too. I have noticed that as universities focus ever more upon producing public facing research, tours have become one way in which research interests are being put out there. For example, the University of Cambridge commissioned the 800 Years of Death and Disease in Cambridge walk and audio tour and then there is Queen Mary's interdisciplinary East End Tour which I  myself managed to review last year.

We tried to enter St Paul's Cathedral but it was inexplicably locked. A little later the same day I managed to gain access and see the next point of the tour: a list of the deans of Melbourne. Stuart Barton Babbage figures on it and he is a descendent of Charles Babbage. Babbage senior is the inventor of the world's first computer, a mechanical device that was never satisfactorily made during his lifetime but which, nonetheless constitutes a first. I felt the relationship of this stop to the tour's subject is somewhat tenuous, as it does not so much tell us about the history of computing in Melbourne as offer a neat way to talk about the history of computers in general, but it does do this and do it quite effectively, too. Not only did this stop introduce Babbage, it also introduced Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer. I was quite unaware of these achievements in the 19th Century that paved the way for the creation of the modern computer so, tenuous or not, I was interested to hear about them.

When we were out on the street the conversation continued and jumped freely around from sectarianism in Melbourne and the purpose of these plastic sheets wrapping tree trunks (possum guards) to indigenous people's status and what the purpose of the tour is. It turns out that this tour manages to cover a number of bases. It is given from time to time to promote IT at Monash, the University of Melbourne and the city more generally, and it is also an excellent way of welcoming new postgraduate students, potential students and interested parties into the department. The tour can take anything up to 8 hours, including lunch, and it offers an informal situation in which those taking it can get to know one another through taking a walk, talking about computers and, it can very usefully orient newcomers to the city itself. Today, however, it was also serving another novel purpose. I had told Chris that I was interested in taking tours of Melbourne and he told me he also happened to be a member of a walking club that was going out into the bush the following Sunday. Today's tour was, then, a test to see if I was A) fit enough to walk for several hours and B) not a jerk who'd mess things up and annoy the walking club's members. I'm happy to say I managed to scrape through on both counts.

We walked down St Kilda Road which, I learnt, was Melbourne's silicon valley in the 70s. The full tour usually starts at Monash University, some way outside the centre, and makes stops along this road where IT companies were previously located before going into the city centre and finishing at the University of Melbourne. This long route has a geographic logic to it that gives the tour some shape. That is helpful since the material itself, while being thematically consistent, does not have a strong narrative or chronology. Our route was not quite so clear cut, however; we snaked our way through the city-centre taking in the sites in a more free-form way. This way of navigating, in fact, lent the walk a lack of artifice that was entirely appropriate: it felt much closer in character to a conversation than to a theatre show, the ghost of which haunts many a guided tour.

We arrived at our final stop Melbourne Observatory, set in the Botanic Gardens that were coming into bloom and alive with many unfamiliar birds. Chris explained that there was a dedicated computer room here many years before CSIRAC or the Ferranti Sirius ever arrived in the city. The computers that filled this room were not machines, they were human; a team of unmarried women who were considered to be highly dependable at making mathematical computations based on astronomical photographs of the Southern night sky. This role of astronomy and mathematics in the development of computing also led us onto the telegram, timekeeping and ultimately the first internet connection in Australia. When I looked at all these inter-related innovations it was hard not to see them as being intrinsically bound up with the spread and maintenance of The British Empire and European colonial expansion and war as a whole, seeing as so many aspects were about making communications quicker and more effective. The history of computing in Melbourne is, therefore, a story that jumps out in many directions crossing the world and straying into global history and commerce too. On the subject of commerce, I should add that this tour is not given for profit, it is an entirely free tour, the rewards of which are far more valuable than however many dollars the university could conceivably charge for it. It is an event that can stimulate genuine engagement with the subject matter, make good personal connections and, if that sounds like your thing, the good news is the next tours are running 31st October and 22nd November 2015, bookings via this link.