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Computer History On Display At Auckland University

The Computer Science department at Auckland University, in association with the Institute of IT Professionals, re-launched the NZ Computer Timeline on Thursday 7 November. The Science Faculty is undergoing a major building programme and the department took the opportunity to redesign the Timeline.

Professor Bob Doran gave Sarah Putt of Institute of IT Professionals a quick tour of the Timeline and the historic computers, equipment and documents on display in the public areas of the department.

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The tour officially begins in the newly constructed atrium on the ground floor, which houses the Computer Timeline. It was first created in 2003, but due to a major construction work on buildings in the science faculty, the Timeline had to be relocated and redesigned. Professor Bob Doran says they have added 10 years onto the Timeline to bring it up to date.

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Heading through the atrim to the entrance to the Computer Science department on the ground floor, visitors will notice a striking artwork by Para Matchitt which was commissioned for the department in 1984.

 

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Also on this floor is the department's salute to Apple, which features a range of Macintosh computers, including the 'Lisa'.

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Up the stair case and through to the first floor, and the University's first computer is on display. The IBM 1620 arrived at the university in 1963 (a similar computer was installed in Canterbury University). Doran was a student at the time and would often use it between the hours of 2am and 6am.

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Doran slides across a top panel of the IBM 1620, and we take a look inside. He describes the smell as "hot grease" and says that for a long time that is what old computer rooms smelt like. Some of displays have literally become part of the furniture and Doran says students often sit at the historic computer to eat their lunch. 

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On the second floor are examples of Totalisators - early betting machines which were popular in New Zealand when this really was a nation of rugby, racing and beer. Doran lectured on the history of the Totalisator at the Computer History Museum in California earlier this year to mark the machine's 100 year anniversary. The mechanical counter in this photograph is part of a totalisator from Awapuni in Palmerston North.

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Another gem on the second floor is a 100-year old mechanical calculator (in the front of the display cabinet) donated by the old Auckland Harbour Board. Doran says the department is keeping hold of treasures such as this, in the hope that museums may one day become interested in the history of computing.

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The commanding presence on this floor is the 1994 sculpture by Leigh Christensen which celebrates Charles Babbage's first difference engine design. The back of the sculpture features a human-like spine and shoulder blades. Another Leigh Christensen sculpture is on display on the third floor, which was inspired by the logic circuits that are used in the design of computers. Also on this floor is an IMSAI 8080 from around 1976, which Doran says is the same era as the Apple 1.

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If you take the stairway, then between floors you get a glimpse of the massive building project being undertaken by the University, the building pictured here will soon be demolished as part of a $200 million redevelopment of campus buildings. 

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The fourth floor is referred to as the "computer floor" and is a reminder that New Zealand once had its own computer industry. The computer pictured here is a "Poly", which was developed by Neil Scott and Paul Bryant.

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Finally, the fifth floor houses "input, output devices" and includes the third Leigh Christensen sculpture owned by the department. The wooden sculpture depicts the story of the first "bug" in a computer, which was apparently caught in one of the relays.

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There is also a collection of pamphlets, papers and instruction books, including this selection from the 1980s, which are distinguished by the colourful art work on the covers.

The Computer Timeline and displays are open to members of the public at any time, and for more information about the items on display check out the Computer Science department's website here.

Sarah Putt is a Communications and Policy Lead at the Institute of IT Professionals