The first computer to arrive at Melbourne University was so big it had to be delivered in pieces by truck.
In 1955, it was Jurij Semkiw’s job to help assemble the massive, two-tonne machine, known as CSIRAC, and which is one of the oldest computers in the world.
It is now on display at Melbourne Museum, taking up the space of a large bedroom. A Heritage Council of Victoria plaque describes CSIRAC as Australia’s first computer.
”You had to do everything from scratch: write your program, test your program, run your program,” Mr Semkiw said. ”It is very important. It’s the fourth or fifth computer in the world and the only one that is preserved in its original form.”
Banks of dotted lights flash beside the jungle of multicoloured wires and coils. A typewriter with white tape, which fed primitive programs into the computer, sits atop a metal desk.
Mr Semkiw officially retired in 1994, but volunteers at the university every Tuesday, compiling a history of the computing department. Next week, the university will award him a gold medal for his years of service.
During his time at the university Mr Semkiw rode successive waves of technology. He designed and built early photocopying equipment and helped double CSIRAC’s storage capacity.
Born in Ukraine in 1929, his family travelled across Europe, displaced by the Second World War. He worked chopping timber near Bacchus Marsh and moved on to study electronics at RMIT before he was recruited to work at Melbourne University’s computation laboratory.
Mr Semkiw knew little about computers when he began working with CSIRAC, which was originally built to do calculations for the CSIRO. Later, the computer produced music and helped calculate weather forecasts.
But it demanded patience from its operator.
”After you switched it on each morning, you had to run specific tests on the machine to make sure everything was working,” he said.