T Alex Reid interview, 22 July 2014 and 29 July 2014

Dublin Core

Title

T Alex Reid interview, 22 July 2014 and 29 July 2014

Subject

Computer Science and Software Engineering

Description

Thomas Alexander Reid was born in Nottingham. The family migrated to Perth when he was 14 years old. He attended John Curtin High School. He did a degree in maths and applied maths at UWA. During Alex’s second year at UWA he took a cadetship with the Department of Supply and went to work at the Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) in Adelaide in the vacations. WRE were tracking rockets and using complicated mathematics for computing their trajectory.
In March 1969, Alex came to work as a programmer at the Computing Centre at UWA. Within about 18 months, Alex was promoted to Applications Manager, Assistant Director and later he became Director. He remained in this position until 1991.

One of Reid’s big projects was LOANLY – an automated loan system for the Reid Library. This was the first self service automation system installed in a library world-wide. He gave lectures on LOANLY throughout Australia and in Britain. A paper on the project was submitted to the Australian Computer Society for the Case Study Prize and won the prize in 1978.

Alex retired from UWA in 2004. He is Honorary Professional Fellow and lectures on ethics in computing. He does consulting work primarily for AARNet (Australia’s Academic and Research Network) and helped set up the Australian Access Federation which helps researchers to use resources in other facilities. He also works on how to support researchers in e-research such as SKA - the Square Kilometre Array, a global next-generation radio telescope project involving institutions from over 20 countries.

Creator

Reid, T Alex

Publisher

University of Western Australia Historical Society

Rights

Copyright holder University of Western Australia

Format

MP3 files

Type

Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

Julia Wallis

Interviewee

T Alex Reid

Location

Yokine, W.A.

Duration

Interview 1: 58 minutes, 35 seconds
Interview 2: 1 hour, 7 minutes, 43 seconds
Total: 2 hours, 6 minutes, 18 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Interview 1

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis
01:05

Track 2
00:00 Thomas Alexander Reid was born in Nottingham. The family migrated to Perth when he was 14 years old. He attended John Curtin High School. He did a degree in maths and applied maths at UWA. His student number was 600329. The Mathematics Departments was upstairs in what is now the Vice Chancery. The library was in the northern wing where the visitors centre is now. Physics and Chemistry were in the buildings that are Geology and Geography. The Reid Library was completed in 1964 and the new Physics Building was built after he had finished doing that subject. The expanding campus included the construction of the new Arts building.
05:49 Students from other faculties mixed as the campus was compact. Alex was a committee member of the Christian Union and met his wife Helen at a car rally put on by them. Their first date was at a play put on by the University Dramatic Society at the Dolphin Theatre. Alex joined the university rowing club and was a founding member of the soccer club.
11:03 There were girls studying maths and applied maths. Peter Winter lectured in Applied Mathematics and was a tutor. Having a mathematics degree gave students a range for options that used maths as a foundation unit. Alex went into computing.
14:33 During Alex’s second year at UWA he took a cadetship with the Department of Supply and went to work at the Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) in Adelaide in the vacations. When he arrived in November 1961 he was put in the maths services group which had a computer. There were no computers in WA at this time. The computer took up a whole room but was much slower than a smartphone! There were other students from UWA there as well as two lecturers Malcolm Hood and Peter Winter. WRE were tracking rockets and using complicated mathematics for computing their trajectory. The Centre was the base for the Woomera Rocket Range and one of the projects they were working on was the British Blue Streak Rocket. When Alex graduated he returned to work here permanently (1963-1965), married Helen in 1964 and settled in Adelaide.
22:09 Alex then took a job with the Bureau of Census and Statistics and did some training in Canberra before moving to take up a job in Perth in 1966. The freeway and the Narrows Bridge had been built. Alex worked on tools for manipulating census data. Then they built what was called a Table Generator which allowed you to pull out specific data quickly. This was a Control Data computer. It was one of the fastest computers in the country. The first computer in Perth was the IBM1620 which was installed at UWA in 1962. Undergraduate students were not allowed to use the computer. By the time Alex came back to Perth this computer had been superseded.
28:08 In March 1969, Alex came to work as a programmer at the Computing Centre at UWA. By now they had the first time-share computer - the PDP-6. All the other computers were batch operated. About 50 terminals could access the computer simultaneously. In addition, it ran an experiment for the Department of Psychology with a rat race in real time. There were also Physics experiments conducted on it. Alex started working on UNIWAFT which diagnosed problems with computer programmes. This was up and running at the end of 1970. Denis Moore was the Director of the Computer Centre which was located in the new Physics Department. The staff was housed in wooden demountable buildings in Irwin Street on campus. The centre devised a programme called MINWAFT to assist State Schools to introduce computing in schools.
37:13 Within about 18 months, Alex was promoted to Applications Manager and later Assistant Director (1974-1979). He was Acting Director from time to time and became Director in 1979 when Dennis Moore resigned. He remained in this position until 1991. Another big project was LOANLY – an automated loan system for the Reid Library. This was the first self service automation system installed in a library world-wide. David Knoll was the librarian involved in the project. The project had its teething problems but was running very well by 1977. Alex gave a lecture to the Computer Society in Perth about the project and was voted lecturer of the year in WA (and runner up in Australia). He gave lectures on LOANLY throughout Australia and in Britain. Sir Maurice Wilkes from Cambridge University came to Perth in July 1971 and gave a day seminar and Alex shared the platform talking about online computing and data bases. He also developed a course on data bases. UWA was quite advanced.
45:31 When Dennis Moore arrived he started a postgraduate diploma course called a Dip NAAC (Numerical Analysis and Automatic Computing). In 1969, the name was changed to Dip Com (a Diploma of Computation). Alex did this Diploma part-time in 1969. This was the only university course available in computing at this time. You had to already have a degree to be accepted on the course. By 1975, a separate department was needed and the Department of Computer Science was set up. Professor Jeff Roehl was the Foundation Professor .
48:32

Track 3
00:00 LOANLY was named after the character Lonely in the TV series Callan. A paper on the project was submitted to the Australian Computer Society for the Case Study Prize and won the prize in 1978. With the proceeds he bought his first micro-computer for $500. Alex’s eldest son programmed Space Invaders on it. He became a Professor of Computing at Oxford University and has recently moved to Adelaide. It was not until the IBM PC hit the market that computers became available for use by the students. Costs had come down at lot. The IBM 1620 cost $88,054 (£44,027). The PDP6 cost $469,000. IBM was known as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in the computer marketplace.
05:47 At about the same time that Maurice Wilkes gave the lecture on multi-access computer systems, Dennis and Alex ran a course for the UWA Extension Service called Computer Programming and Data Management for On-line Systems. It was a 25-week course of study that started in March 1971 on data bases and data management. People came from government departments and other companies outside UWA. Towards the end of the course the students had access to the PDP6 to enter data and search the data base with a programme called DAMP (Data Management Access Package) which taught students about Codasyl . It was an early example of online learning.
08:58

Interview 2

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis
00:54

Track 2
00:00 WARCC (the Western Australian Regional Computing Centre) was formed in 1972. The IBM 1620 was the first programmable computer in WA. Main Roads also had one. Other people could use the computer but time-sharing really took off when the PDP6 arrived. Now several users (such as the SEC, WAIT, and PMG) could use the computer simultaneously and remotely by telephone line. Every 3 years the universities were offered grants towards buying computers from the AUC . In 1970-1972, the government only gave grants to universities that would agree to co-operate with other nearby universities or other entities. None of the other big universities did get grants but UWA was prepared to share resources. UWA and several key stakeholders put in funds, which together with the government grant, enabled them to buy a larger computer.
05:05 The computer was a Cyber 72 (derived from the CDC7600) purchased from Control Data Corporation in the USA and was installed in August 1972. It was designed by Seymour Cray. These computers were among the first to contain multiple processors. It was upgraded from time to time and disk drives were added. A lot of effort was made to make sure that everyone’s information was kept private. This introduced the use of passwords. Hackers were not so common then. IBM was probably the first company to develop compatible computers.
11:41 The WARCC was housed and run by UWA but was self-supporting and independent of UWA. Gradually the range of services provided increased. WARCC started to write computer programmes and software for other organisations. Some of the programmers were placed in different government departments on secondments. They had a large training unit. The purpose built basement in the Physics Department had to be extended to expand with the needs of the WARCC. They even housed and managed computers for other organisations such as the Health Department. WARCC operated a little bit like an incubation unit until people had the skills and know-how to operate and run their own computers. People gradually became independent of WARCC and mini-computers accelerated this process. Micro-computers were even more affordable.
16:50 UWA was the leader in computing in WA. Alex’s boss, the Director, Dennis Moore, set up the Central Government computing facility and worked with the Health Department. Alex was Assistant Director of WARCC from 1974-1979 and was appointed Director when Dennis Moore resigned. Networking also lessened the need for time sharing. WARCC was working on networking computers and the idea of using the internet, similar to ARPANET which was developed by the US Department of Defence. WARCC developed a packet-switching network which connected a number of computers and terminals around WA. Unfortunately by this time, the need and will for sharing information was waning. Alex talks about two types of computer sharing:
1 computer connected to remote terminal
2 computer connected to remote batch station
The third type of networking which he didn’t discuss on audio was computer-computer network connections: very common now (eg the whole Internet/Web is built on this), but back then very rare.
In 1977 WARCC built the first multi-host packet-switched network in Australia - it interconnected various computers in WA; ultimately, you could just buy this "off the shelf", as indeed was done to establish AARNet connecting all universities in 1989.
Although the work they did didn’t lead directly to AARNet, it give confidence to the university/computing community that this was feasible.
20:47 The computing centre was evolving. It moved into networking and micro computing. WARCC allowed people to rent micro-computers. It was financially quite challenging to change the role of the WARCC and move with the times. They borrowed money from UWA to invest in new computers and paid the money back over the years. When Alex left WARCC at the end of 1991, they had finally paid off their debt. WARCC was turned into a much more commercial enterprise separate from UWA. Alex resigned as Director and became the IT Policy Officer at UWA and did this from 1991-1993. WARCC changed its name to Winthrop Technology and it was left to the University Computing Services to run the network within the university.
23:29 With the rise of mini and micro-computers, UWA began to embrace computers in the workplace. They were used for scientific and engineering experimentation. UWA staff became top users of computers in Australian universities. In 1993, the Chancellor decided that there was no requirement for a central computing facility or any need for guidance and policy. Alex was made redundant and became Director of Oxford University Computing Services (1993-2000). In 2000, he was head-hunted back to UWA to head up the IT Policy Unit and retired from this role in 2005. The Humanities also used the computers. E/Prof John Jory’s Latin Inscriptions Database was uploaded onto the PDP6. The library put their catalogue online and added a circulation system which eventually replaced LOANLY. The library is now the information hub of the university.
30:05 UWA administration began to use computers early on to handle student information and finances. A project in the UK (Project MAC) tried to develop a shared university system but it did not work. A similar project in Australia CASMAC also ended in disaster. The Queensland Government advocated a shared service through their governmental agencies about 10 years ago but it also collapsed.
35:14 At the end of 1989, Alex was asked to speak about WARCC to the Parliamentary Public Accounts and Expenditure Review Committee. The model was commended but it wasn’t taken up. Alex later contributed a chapter in a book on Computer Excellence on this topic.
36:21 UWA is no longer the leading light in the computer field in WA. Now everybody uses computers. There were a few staff at UWA who refused to use computers but most took to them. Students today must be computer savvy. A lot of resources are online and computers are part of the teaching process. MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) is a case in point.
41:30 In 1976, the Australian National Computer Conference was held in Perth. Don Bitzer spoke at the conference and demonstrated a system called PLATO. The system had touch sensitive terminals and graphic displays and was designed to be a teaching tool and compliment a particular course. The US Army used the program for their training. Alex visited the USA in 1982 and advocated the purchase of PLATO. They ran PLATO at UWA from 1985-1989 on a cyber- computer and it was very popular but by1989 it was not cost effective. Today e-learning programs such as Blackboard and Moodle are used which are more or less the same as PLATO.
46:02 The WRE moved to Control Data computers after Alex left. He is not sure if they ever used computers for teaching. When the PLATO service closed at UWA a new company Computer Aided Learning Service (CALS) was set up by Richard Twiss. The Defence Force was a client.
48:42 Students in the Computer Science and Software Engineering at UWA learn to program a computer. Prof Jeff Roehl advocated the Pascal computer language. Fortran was the predominant language in the early days and is still used for scientific computing but it was easy to make mistakes in the programming. Yianni Attikiouzel in Electrical Engineering also taught the Pascal program to his students. Engineering students build their own computers. Alex’s son developed a program when he was 12 years old and later re wrote it in BASIC. There are many different types of computer languages. COBOL is used for business processing. Other languages are C+ and C++ . Different languages are developed to assist with different needs. HTML (Hyper Text Mark Up Language) is used for websites.
54:04 Alex retired from UWA in 2004. He is Honorary Professional Fellow and lectures on ethics in computing. He does consulting work primarily for AARNet (Australia’s Academic and Research Network) and helped set up the Australian Access Federation which helps researchers to use resources in other facilities. He also works on how to support researchers in e-research such as SKA - the Square Kilometre Array, a global next-generation radio telescope project involving institutions from over 20 countries.
59:42 Computer ethics is taught using case studies. CLOUD computing poses very particular ethics. What happens when robots malfunction? In the future, there is a feeling that computers will be able to far surpass the abilities of the human brain. We may be too dependent on them even now as they are used in surgery and 3-D printing for burns victims. Alex hopes that in the future computers will be used for good and not evil!
66:49

Collection

Citation

Reid, T Alex, “T Alex Reid interview, 22 July 2014 and 29 July 2014,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024, https://oralhistories.arts.uwa.edu.au/items/show/65.