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From Ferranti to Faculty: Information Technology at Monash University, 1960 to 1990

Introduction

Sarah Rood

At the Monash University Open Day in 1973, visitors queued for the opportunity to try the Speak-Your-Weight Machine. This crowd-drawing attraction was nothing more than a plank of wood balanced on two bricks. If you stood on the plank, the machine it was connected to would, quite literally, speak your weight. If two people were to stand on the plank at the same time the machine would politely retort ‘one at a time please’. There were other displays that attracted similar attention: a train set with numbered carriages that circled the tracks and shunted to reorder, a golf ball-balancing mechanical arm, and a printer that churned out pictures of Fred Flintstone and scantily-clad women. These seemingly simple demonstrations were so popular because a computer, the Department of Computer Science’s HP 2100A, was responsible for operating them all simultaneously.

Many visitors experienced a computer for the first time at this Monash University Open Day. Although the machines and their applications were becoming increasingly common in industry, schools, technical colleges and universities, many people were simply unaware of the existence of computers and how they would one day influence all of our lives. In 1973, Monash University had a single department, with 12 academic staff and approximately 200 students, dedicated to the teaching and study of computer science. In the same year Caulfield Institute of Technology, which went through various organisational changes before becoming part of Monash University in 1990, had 16 staff and around 330 students engaged in the teaching and study of electronic data processing. Now, just 35 years after the Speak-Your-Weight Machine display and only 59 years after the initial test program was run on CSIRAC, the first computer ever built in Australia, Monash University’s Faculty of Information Technology has over 200 staff and just over 3,000 students across five Australian and two international campuses.1

In July 1990, Monash University merged with Chisholm Institute of Technology. The merger effectively threw together the administrative and academic structures of two separate and quite different tertiary institutions. The central administration at the time seized the opportunity for a massive restructure of the new Monash University. Existing departments from both institutions were combined, regrouped and renamed and two new faculties were created, the Faculty of Professional Studies and the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology – the latter known today as the Faculty of Information Technology. The departments of Computer Science and Information Systems from pre-merger Monash, and the School of Computing and Information Systems and the Department of Robotics and Digital Technology from Chisholm, were drawn together under the new Faculty of Computing and Information Technology. The creation of this faculty was of immense significance to Monash University and to the history of computing in Australia.

At the time of the merger, most universities in Australia were involved in teaching and research in computing and computer technology, but the discipline and the related departments were most commonly a subset of other faculties such as science, engineering or economics. Many of these departments dated back to the 1950s and 1960s, when computer science began to emerge in the educational environment. Computing and information science departments of pre-merger Monash University and Chisholm Institute were no exception. The Department of Computer Science at Monash had been in existence since 1968 as part of the Faculty of Science. The Department of Electronic Data Processing at Caulfield Technical College, one of the predecessors of Chisholm Institute, had emerged by 1965.

It would be tempting to begin this history from 1990, the official commencement date of the faculty. The narrative would be simple – the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology created as a result of the Monash-Chisholm merger, a name change and restructure in 1997, followed by the continued rapid growth in size and breadth that established the faculty as a leader in computing research, teaching and education. However, this would be a misrepresentation of the history of this faculty. Although it is indeed young, the origins of the faculty are intertwined with the history of both institutions and pre-date its official creation. This history will explore these origins. It will investigate how teaching and research in computing and information technology emerged at Monash University and Chisholm Institute of Technology in the departments that were united to form the faculty that we know today.

This history was specifically commissioned to explore the origins and formation of the faculty – how it emerged and why. It is not a general history of computing at Monash University. A broad history of computing would investigate all aspects of computing and computer science at Monash and Chisholm and how they was taught, researched and utilised across all disciplines. It might even include the use of computer technology in University administration. But this is not that history. General developments in computing technology will only be addressed where they impact on the environment in which the faculty emerged and in which the departments that comprised this faculty existed.

The narrative that follows brings to life the story of the foundation of the Faculty of Information Technology. Oral history has been used as a way of focussing on the very real experiences of those involved. An initial list of potential interviewees was drawn up by the project steering committee and individuals who had been associated with the faculty and the departments that preceded it were contacted. When the interview process commenced the list of potential interviewees rapidly expanded as interviewees put forward names of contemporaries who could represent other perspectives and experiences. A network steadily emerged alongside a narrative of how the faculty came into existence. Over 40 interviews were carried out and recorded. Time, distance and resources limited the number of people who could be interviewed. Therefore, a concerted effort was made to ensure that the interviewees represented various viewpoints, departments and areas. The interview process was rich and rewarding as individual testimonies identified major themes and events. The history that follows is based on a specific group of experiences and is a representation of the foundations of the Faculty of Information Technology.

Experiences and recollections are a vital component of this history. So too are archival sources. Monash University has an excellent archive collection with a vast holding of documents relating to the operation of the institution. It also includes documents from the Chisholm Institute of Technology, which were transferred to the Monash University Archives after the 1990 merger. These archives have been an invaluable resource for this history and have provided a framework for the narratives and themes that have emerged.

This history of the Faculty of Information Technology commences by chronologically tracing the beginnings of Chisholm Institute of Technology and Monash University. It then looks thematically at the environment in which the departments specifically created for teaching and research in computing emerged. This history also investigates the attitudes towards computing as it surfaced as an entirely new discipline in the tertiary environment. The development of computing departments at each institution as they struggled to deal with resource issues, perceptions of the discipline, and internal divisions and politics, are compared and contrasted. The relationships formed between these departments and other areas of the institution, industry, and government are also addressed as the strengths, emphases, and reputations of these early departments are investigated. The internal and external factors that set the scene for the merger and the creation of the faculty are explored in the final section of the book, which concludes with the establishment of the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology.

Themes emerge in the telling of this story. Although Monash University and Chisholm Institute of Technology were vastly different institutions, many of the underlying issues faced by the departments that later formed the faculty were similar. A lack of understanding of the nature and resource demands of computing and computer science, and negotiating a place for this new area of study in the existing structures and funding models, are recurring themes. Both institutions struggled with what was externally perceived to be an ambiguous relationship between basic computing and computing education. Computing departments at both Chisholm and Monash were forced to deal with the challenge of establishing the credibility of this new discipline while trying to advance computing education and research. These themes are addressed throughout the narrative as it is argued that although the respective environments in which the departments emerged were different, there was considerable common ground in the issues that they faced. These themes and issues and the way they were played out are integral to understanding the formation of the faculty.

Endnote

1    This figure includes academic, research only, general and technical staff. It does not include casual and sessional staff.

 

Cite this chapter as: Rood, Sarah. 2008. ‘Introduction’. In From Ferranti to Faculty: Information Technology at Monash University, 1960 to 1990. Melbourne: Monash University Custom Publishing Services, on behalf of the Monash University Information Technology faculty. pp. ix–xi.

© Copyright 2008 Sarah Rood

All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia's Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University Custom Publishing Services: http://www.epress.monash.edu/mucps.html.

From Ferranti to Faculty: Information Technology at Monash University, 1960 to 1990

   by Sarah Rood