Australia's first computer conference was held in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Sydney from 7 to 9 August 1951.
From a national perspective this conference, titled 'Conference on Automatic Computing Machines' was a landmark in the history of computing in this country. One of the main organisers of the conference, Professor David Myers, later stated that 'Many would agree that the 1951 conference was a turning point in Australia and that since that time computing became increasingly a study in its own right rather than a plaything of specialists. Anyone wishing to consider the state of the art at the end of the first half of this century would be well advised to read the report of that conference.' (Myers, 1994, p.14). Another organizer and important participant in the conference, Trevor Pearcey, agreed that 'it represented a significant moment for Australian computing.' (Pearcey, 1994, p. 28).
Associated with the 1951 conference was an exhibition of commercially available computing related machines and equipment. Pearcey (1994, p. 28) stated the conference 'was attended by 186 people from universities, government departments, and industrial and commercial organizations from all states.'
This conference, and also the 'Conference on Automatic Computing and Data Processing' held in South Australia at the Weapon Research Establishment (WRE) at Salisbury from 3 to 8 June 1957, mark he beginning of the automatic electronic computing science as a discipline and a profession in Australia.
From an international point of view, it is worthy to note that a special guest at the 1951 conference was the eminent mathematician Professor Douglas Hartree, FRS, who was Plummer Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University and was an expert in numerical analysis - an important component of early scientific computing. Hartree was one of the world's leading experts in both analogue and digital computing. Hartree's presence at the conference added considerable prestige to the proceedings. He contributed a number of papers including an opening address, and was involved in many of the discussions following the presentation of the papers.
The acknowledged success of the first conference in 1951 provided the impetus for the running of a second conference in 1957. This second Australian computer conference (mentioned above) was a success from a national and international perspective. Pearcey (1994, p. 42) commented that this conference, titled 'Conference on Automatic Computing and Data Processing', was attended by 150 delegates and produced sixty-three papers of high quality.' It attracted a strong contingent of prominent overseas computer scientists including such leading figures as Maurice Wilkes, Tom Kilburn, S. Gill and J. H. Wilkinson. At this time computers were becoming commercially available in the UK and the USA and a number of representatives from commercial organizations also attended the conference. The willingness of leading overseas computer personnel to attend this second conference to some extent reflected the success of the first Australian computer conference in 1951 and the respect the attendees held for the quality of the early Australian computer developments and the potential for further developments.
It is interesting to note that this second Australian computer conference is credited by Pearcey to have 'fostered discussion which led to formation of a computer society in the United Kingdom (the British Computer Society), this second Australian conference initiated the idea of a computer fraternity' (1994, p. 44). Pearcey goes on to claim that the 1957 conference 'may be viewed as the real starting point of Australian computer associations'. The success of the 1951 conference clearly demonstrated to computer professionals in the outside world, particularly Great Britain, that Australian computer scientists were at that time close to the cutting edge of computer developments and that in 1957 the long trip to Australia would be fully justified.
At this early stage there was no national computer society yet formed in Australia. However, by the late 1950s a critical mass of professional computer engineers, programmers, operators and users had been established - there were enough interested individuals and organizations in the field of computing to be able to form a viable national association. The result was the formation of ANCCAC (Australian National Committee on Computing and Automatic Control), which was comprised mostly of professional associations whose main achievement was to run computer conferences at three yearly intervals (Sydney 1960, Melbourne 1963, and Canberra 1966). The first state-based society was in South Australia 1960 followed soon after by Victoria in early 1961.
As a consequence of these early activities, and the rapidly growing computer industry, the Australian Computer Society (ACS) was established on 1 January 1966, after agreement between the already previously established state computer societies. The ACS national conference series began in 1969. At first the ACS conferences were held every few years, becoming annual events by the mid 1980s.
The direct lineage from those early developments can be seen - from the conception and initial assemblage of a test automatic electronic computer, the CSIR Mark I, in the late 1940s, to the running of Australia's first computer conference in 1951, where the operation of the CSIR Mark I was demonstrated - and thence to the formation of the Australian Computer Society in 1966. Many of the early members of the ACS received their initial training on the CSIR Mark I in Sydney, or on the later updated version in Melbourne, renamed CSIRAC, and a number of them attended the 1951 computer conference in Sydney. The 1951 conference can therefore be seen as an important historic link on the road to later developments.
By the end of the 1950s, however, because of rapid overseas developments, and the limited funding and changed priorities in Australia, the national computing industry, especially that concerned with hardware development, gradually shifted its focus to play more of a client role for large overseas companies than as an innovator and initiator, as in the heady days of the late 1940s to the mid 1950s. The 1951 conference sits squarely in the middle of those early exciting developments when Australia was a member of a very small exclusive club of nations driving developments within the computer industry.