The PDP-10 mainframe computer that came to JCU in 1970 was an immense help for students and researchers alike, and it also produced the first ‘nerds’ that spent night after night typing away on the ‘big machine’.
In the early 1970s, Townsville was a quiet rural town with a small university on a small city campus. But even in such a remote place, cutting edge technology was immensely important to get research done. This is why a very special delivery arrived via airplane from Sydney in late 1970 with “probably the most expensive single cargo ever to be landed in Townsville,” says Mick Lamont, who made a documentary about the historic moment.
On board the airplane was the PDP-10, a mainframe computer built by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), a company that is now known as HP (Hewlett Packard). At the time, the computer cost $460,610. In today’s money this would be around $5 million.
The abducted computer
Getting the oversized computer from the airport to the JCU campus in Pimlico was a lot harder than anticipated. There was a bit of a shock moment when the big machine got lost somewhere on the six kilometre stretch between the airport and the JCU campus.
It took a while for the JCU staff to find out where the computer had been ‘abducted’ to until they found the trucks safely parked in front of a local ‘watering hole’, where the thirsty drivers had stopped. After that, it took another six weeks until the massive computer was ready for use on 9 November 1970.
Programming without a screen
JCU’s first PhD graduate in geology, Aubrey Paverd, was among the early users of the PDP-10. He remembers that it occupied a whole floor of a building. “And there was of course no screen,” Aubrey says. “We used a machine that looked like a typewriter instead. And you had to remember where the cursor was, because you had no screen.”
The computer could be used by 16 different users at the same time. It had an internal memory of 64 KByte, which means about 65,000 letters or numbers. In 20 years of Computing at James Cook, Ian Hunter wrote that the computer had two RP02 disk drives with a capacity of over 25 million characters each. In today's numbers, this means about 25 MBytes or about 10 images on a mobile phone.
Working through the night to get work done
In 1970 and 1971, geology student Aubrey Paverd used the PDP-10 to do calculations for his PhD thesis. “Just what you can do on a simple Excel spreadsheet now in half an hour would probably have taken us four or five hours, or maybe even longer,” he says. But this didn’t deter avid students like Aubrey. “We used to work between midnight and dawn, because that was when the computer was available to us. And so that was probably the most difficult thing of the entire thesis – trying to get computer time.”
Today, computers are everywhere, and they have made our lives so much easier. But the same goes for an apparently tricky to use 1970s mainframe like the PDP-10. These computers helped people to work on their research and finish their theses for a career in science, industry and education, such as for Aubrey Paverd who started a career in Africa and the United States before coming back to Australia in the 1990s.