The history of computing at the University of Melbourne


Academic Computing has a long history at the University of Melbourne.



The first computer at the University — and the first computer in the country — was commissioned at the University in 1956, after having been built by CSIR in Sydney in the late 1940s and operated there for five years.

The CSIRAC machine, as it was referred to at Melbourne, had a total of 768 20-bit words of storage (implemented using mercury delay memory lines), executed at a clock speed of around 1 kHz (note, not even MHz), was built using 2,000 valves, required around 30 kW of power to run, and weighed two tonnes.

Academic courses in computing followed not long after CSIRAC’s arrival. The original “Computation Laboratory” became the “Computation Department” as these courses flourished, and, by the late 1960s, a further name change gave birth to the Department of Information Science, as a regular academic department in the Faculty of Science. The original door of the Computation Laboratory is preserved as a relic of these early years, and is on display in the Doug McDonell building; CSIRAC itself has been carefully looked after by a team of dedicated volunteers, and is on display at the Melbourne Museum. It is now the only remaining example of this class of computer.

By 1975, the Department of Information Science had reached the point where a Chair appointment was warranted, and Professor Peter Poole was recruited. Poole changed the name of the Department to Computer Science, and a period of rapid staff recruitment and student growth followed. During this period the department was housed in the Richard Berry Building, at the eastern edge of the University’s main Parkville campus.

In 1990 the Department of Computer Science was shifted to the Faculty of Engineering, and a Software Engineering stream of the Bachelor of Engineering was introduced not long after. A three-year Bachelor of Computer Science degree was also on offer by the middle of that decade, in addition to the established Computer Science major (and associated honours year) in the Bachelor of Science. A range of combined degrees were also introduced through this period.

A further name change took place in 1999, when the department became Computer Science and Software Engineering.

During this same period, a Department of Information Systems was formed in the Faculty of Science, to focus on the business and applied side of computing. Foundation Chair Mike Vitale took on the responsibility of growing this complementary computing discipline from its commencement in 1995, and managed a period of rapid expansion not unlike the one Computer Science had gone through in the 1980s. A Bachelor of Information Systems degree was introduced (also with an optional fourth honours year), together with a range of combined degrees; and masters-level degrees and research higher degrees followed.

Despite their different faculty alignments, the two departments were co-located for many years, first in the SEECS building at 207 Bouverie Street (Computer Science had moved into these purpose-built premises in 1993) and then, from 2002, in the ICT Building at 111 Barry Street.

The period 2007 to 2009 was dominated by curriculum redesign, with the University reshaping its entire undergraduate degree offering as part of the Melbourne Model reforms led by Vice Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis. All of the combined degrees were removed, as were the Bachelor of Computer Science and Bachelor of Information Systems, and, from 2010, the Bachelor of Engineering.

More change followed in 2009 and 2010, with an external review of IT programs at the University, followed by an internal review. Recommendations emerged for further course changes, and, in a follow-up paper from the Provost issued in late 2010, a recommendation was made that Information Systems and Computer Science and Software Engineering should merge to form a single academic department.

That merger took place on 1 January 2012, with the name for the new department, Computing and Information Systems, having been chosen by the staff of the two merging entities. The new department was housed in the Melbourne School of Engineering (now the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology) for budgetary purposes. In recognition of the need for visibility of the University’s IT programs, the Melbourne School of Information was formed as a graduate school of the University.

A further building move took place in May 2012, when the department moved into six newly-refurbished floors in the Doug McDonell Building, in the Science/Engineering precinct of the main campus.

Past Heads of Department
Former and Current Heads of Department, 2013. Left–right: Professor Alistair Moffat, Professor Liz Sonenberg, Dr Peter Thorne, Professor Rao Kotagiri, Professor Leon Sterling, Professor Justin Zobel (with portrait of Professor Peter Poole). Image courtesy University of Melbourne.

Heads of Department

Frank Hirst 1955–1972

Computation Laboratory, and then Computation Department

Bill Flower 1972–1975

Department of Information Science

Peter C. Poole 1975–1990

Department of Computer Science

Peter Thorne 1990–1996

Department of Computer Science

Michael Vitale 1995–1998

Department of Information Systems

Leon Sterling 1996–2002

Department of Computer Science, and then Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering

Iain Morrison 1998–2000

Department of Information Systems

Liz Sonenberg 2000–2007

Department of Information Systems

Rao Kotagiri 2002–2006

Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering

Alistair Moffat 2007–2011

Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering

Steve Howard 2007–2010

Department of Information Systems

Liz Sonenberg 2011

Department of Information Systems

Justin Zobel 2012–2017

Department of Computing and Information Systems

Justin Zobel 2017

School of Computing and Information Systems

Uwe Aickelin 2018—

School of Computing and Information Systems

Sign reading 'Automation in computation at the University of Melbourne by CSIRAC.
CSIRAC Sign c1956. Image courtesy University of Melbourne, FEIT-CIS Heritage Collection. This sign was donated to Museum Victoria as part of the CSIRAC Archive.
Team from CSIRO Division for Building research using CSIRAC from L-R: Roy Muncy, Terry Holden (at console), Bill Davern, 1958. Image courtesy CSIRO.
Barry Conyngham, Computer Music Studio, Computer Science Department c1970s. Image courtesy Barry Conyngham.
Professor David Pennington Vice Chancellor with computer, c1990. Image courtesy University of Melbourne Archives.
UNIX terminal, c1980s. Image courtesy University of Melbourne.
Computer Science lab, Richard Berry building, c1987. Image courtesy University of Melbourne.

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Student life in the Department