Kay Thorne, CSIRAC technical assistant
I started work on CSIRAC in the computational laboratory, which was then situated in the University of Melbourne’s Physics school, just before the beginning of the academic year in 1959.
Never seen again
Often the first we would see of someone wanting to use the computer would be the person arriving for an appointment with several boxes and sheaves of paper spilling out everywhere. He would be trying to sort results from some experiment or data collection, according to some criteria or process which was only in his head, and wanting to know if the computer could help.
We usually started out by explaining that if the potential user could write down on a piece of paper exactly what he did, so that someone else could sort or process the data and get exactly the same result, then we could look at using the computer. Frank (Hirst) then showed them around the laboratory very briefly and sent them off to sort out what they were really trying to do. Many came back triumphantly in a few days with their piece of paper and some were never seen again.
Women in computing
I have been asked to comment on the role of women in computing in those days. It was common for women to be the data processors in scientific environments. This was usually done using large calculators, of which Marchants were the best known at the time. Betty Laby ran a laboratory in the Statistics Department in which a large number of women operated these calculators, processing data for the predominantly male staff and research workers. The women were often called computers, and it was a skilled and demanding occupation.
When the computer became more available, a few more women, such as Alison Doig were amongst the early users. They were usually research workers who wanted to process their experimental results. The calculator operators gradually disappeared as their work was done by computers.
Every day an adventure
Working with Trevor Pearcey, who had designed CSIRAC, and Geoff Hill, and the many people who were attracted early to the excitement of working with new technology, was intellectually challenging. Imagine the conversation over morning tea in the caf! On a daily basis, the atmosphere was the most intellectually challenging and the most fun I have ever encountered in a workplace – we didn’t accept limitations, just challenges, and there were virtually no demarcations based on rank.
It was quite common for Trevor, Frank and Geoff to spend time helping me collate a new printing of the programming manual or helping George and Ron repair the old printer, while discussing random number generators, the need for a new subroutine, or CSIRO politics. That was the sort of place it was. It is also the group of people to whom I feel most bonded – we not only shared an adventure, every day was an adventure.