Control Data Australia Memories compiled by Brian Membrey

The160A : An Australian Story

There have been a few attempts to patch together the fate of the early 160-A machine installed in the Heymanson office as a demonstration machine and data centre, but none of them quite rang true.

The 23 April, 1983 version of FLASH noted the console of a 160A was to be on display in the reception area at 494 St. Kilda Road, but whoever collated the potted history also appears to confused two separate machines.

The initial recollections of Ron Bird and John O'Neil was after featuring at the A.C.S. Conference at Melbourne Uni in 1963, , the demo machine was that it was lent to the Bureau of Census after the multi-million 3600/3200 order, where it converted something like 50 million punched cards to magnetic tape, then returned to Melbourne where it was leased to the Aeronautical Research Laboratories (A.R.L).

Both Ron and John however have clear memories of the A.R.L. equipment developing a memory fault and the back chassis being transported in the back of George Crawford's vintage Jaguar back to C.D.A's office at Eton Square where it was swapped with the demo 160A.

Somehow this didn't seem quite right : demo Heymanson >> A.C.S. >> Census >> A.R.L and swapped for demo machine?  

Does not compute - if the machine at A.R.L. was the ex Heymanson demo, how could it have been swapped for the demo machine at Eton Square?

An exchange of emails early 2018 suggests the obvious answer - there was another 160A in the loop somewhere, and Ron now recalls ...

"Doing some serious thinking back to my days in Canberra in 1963/4, I now firmly believe the 160A system installed at Census around August/September 1963 was drop shipped into Canberra from Minneapolis.

"All this peripheral gear was the latest and new. I seem to recall the engineer that came out from Mpls to install the system and giving Chas Yates, Les Rowe and myself a rundown saying that the system was integrated and checked out before shipment.  

"So I am sure  there wasn’t a 160A shipped from Melbourne. Seems we could have been chasing our tails thinking the Heymanson 160A was sent to Canberra".

"At the end of punch card conversion (around June 1964) at the Census' Kingston Canberra temporary site the system was shipped to Melbourne and installed at ARL, minus the 405/177 card reader that was stored in a back room at 474 St Kilda road.  

"The 405 was not required at ARL as most of the input/output was digital/analog connected to their wind tunnel. Also the 405 required 208 Volt 3 phase 60Hz power supply that would have required a 50/60 Hz MG set.

"The 160A system was rented to ARL for around 12 months and at the end of the term, was moved to the Data Centre computer room  at 598 St Kilda Road around July/August 1965".

"A 160A was required in Sydney in early 1966 where it was used to test out the Plessey keysets (as these were being developed by Alan Horsley of Plessey, Sydney), 8076 communications mux and 915 OCR in readiness for the 1966 A.C.S. Conference in Canberra.

"At the 1966 ACS, it was to be used to show off the PMG’s new transmission capability by switching messages from Canberra to Queensland, and then to the 160-A at the PMG Research Labs at 10 Lonsdale Street in Melbourne.

"A 160A was definitely shipped to Sydney and I think was the Heymanson 160A or the one returned from ARL. My gut feel it was the Heymanson 160A but I can’t be sure.

"Several weeks were spent checking the gear out in the shopfront at 77 Pacific Highway (the office was on the second floor).  Those involved were Bruce Bambrough (Sydney Manager), Bill Polglase (915 OCR), myself and Alan Horsely from Plessey Sydney.

"After testing and checking everything out the gear was shipped to the Canberra ACS conference site.   After the Conference, the 160A came back to Melbourne along with the 915 OCR and 8076 Multiplexor where it was accommodated at the 598 Data Centre.

"The ultimate fate of this 160A is unknown, but the 405/177 card reader I converted from 60HZ to 50 HZ in the back room of 474  was later able to be used in the data centre. This 1200 CPM Card reader was credited with processing 50 million cards from the ‘58 Census. It was installed with a 160A as part of the Mark IV terminal in the Melbourne Data Centre".

John O'Neil in an earlier exchange (February, 2017)  also confirmed that there was a third 160A at Eton Square and its use at the ACS Conference ...

"... it was subsequently installed in the shop-front of the new Sydney office (on Pacific Highway, the office was on the first floor). It also had a communications multiplexor attached that we used to demonstrate 2400 baud transmission to a machine in Canberra during the Australian Computer Conference ... Jim Thornton came out as a keynote speaker.

"While this 160A was in Sydney we used it to debug the BATE terminal for the original TAB Carbine system - this would have been in the second half of 1965 if I remember correctly. I suspect that this machine later ended up at Caulfield Tech”.

(The latter recollection was incorrect - Ron confirms that the 160A he installed at Caulfield was brand-new and shipped directly from the States in 1965 - it may have been one of the last delivered, production of the 160A ceased that year)

In the 2018 exchange, John added ...

" I recall the problem we found with the 8076 Comms MUX while trying to test the Plessey terminal. The terminal appeared to be duplicating each character it sent, yet checking the logic of the terminal design, this made no sense. Jim Walters had programmed the 160A for the terminal testing, and had a short loop that looked for the flag for the line interface that indicated a new incoming character had been loaded, read this into the 160A, maybe do some processing then back to check the flag.

"The problem turned out to be a poor design in the MUX - when I checked through the schematics it became obvious that the MUX took forever to reset the flag after a character had been read from the interface and that the 160A program was beating this! We confirmed this by building a delay into the 160A scan."

As to Ron's uncertainty as to the fate of the Census-ARL machine, it seems that it ultimately returned to Census, but at their site in Adelaide, possibly with a card reader added. A Commonwealth Government Gazette of June, 1964 showing a contract under “Victoria” awarded to CDA for “Hire and maintenance of computer” (with no details given, but in all probability A.R.L) at £23,806; and a couple of months later for hire and maintenance of a line printer £3,750

The Government Gazette of January, 1966 then reveals the purchase of a CDC 160A computer for £9,400, again without specifying a Department (at this price, it would have had to have been a refurbished system).

The 3rd A.C.S. Conference referred to above was in May, 1966, some four months after the order, again strongly pointing to the Census-ARL configuration being that sold in January as the Heymanson "demo" was used both at the conference and testing of the BATE terminals.

Just when it commenced operation is unknown - the November, 1966 Gazette has a contract of $473 “Relocate 160A computer system”, hardly enough for a shipment to Adelaide, but possibly covering the disassembly at ARL and local transport.

The December, 1972 edition of FLASH suggested that a survey by the Department of Labour and National Service had revealed 551 digital computers had been removed from service in Australia over the previous ten years, but CDA had had just three "returns" and all had been recycled to other fields.

These included the 3200 based in a caravan in the Northern Territory which had a doubtful future when ELDO packed up, "but it soon found a home at the Weapons Research Establishment in South Australia"; a 3500 with S.A. Public Service, surplus after they installed a CYBER system, "very quickly taken up by the Corporation who had a customer waiting in the U.S.A" ...

"... and a 160-A from Aeronautical Research Laboratories at Fishermen's Bend taken up by an Adelaide customer".

 The 1983 FLASH suggestion of the 160A and “a decade quietly humming away in Adelaide” appears to have been seriously understated as it appears almost certain that it would have been installed late 1966 or early 1967).