Avant  Computing Services

Celebrating 50 Years in Information Technology. 1970 - 2020




New Zealand's First Computer
The IBM 650


There was an IBM 650 on display at MOTAT in Auckland many years ago, which was New Zealand's first computer and only valve computer, installed in November 1960 in Wellington at the Treasury. MOTAT had stored this in containers which subsequently leaked, and it looks as though this historic machine was dumped, as a result.

When we photographed this machine at a display at Motat in November 1972, it had an enormous card read/punch unit, and a tape deck alongside. Ours is the only colour photograph we have ever seen of it, - maybe its the only one, although unfortunately, the quality isn't great.

The main job for the 650 initially, was to prepare the payroll for New Zealand's 34,000 public servants. It used valve circuits and rotating drum main memory, magnetic tape storage and a card read/punch unit to input and output files with. The 650 was made between 1954 and 1962, and was quite old technology by the time this one was installed at the Treasury in November, 1960.


Covers open on the IBM 650 at Texas A&M Univeristy .. Courtesy of Wikipedia

IBM 1401 being restored at the Computer Museum .. Courtesy of Wikipedia

The subsequent IBM 1401, which was popular before the System/360 was announced, was a second-generation, transistorised machine, with the first known example to be installed in New Zealand, at NZ Railways HQ in Wellington, in May 1962. Around the same time, Canterbury University installed an IBM 1620, a compact machine which was well used until the University built a new Computer Centre and Telephone Exchange building in 1966 at its Ilam site in Christchurch, which was to house an IBM System 360/44 from October 1967. (At the time, we were busy installing the open-frame step PABX in the lower floor, and had yet to even see our first computer.)

The System/360 announced in 1964, was known as the first true 3rd Generation Computer, because of its advance to the use of Integrated Circuit Chips (or Solid State technology). The writer's opportunity arose to get into EDP (Electronic Data Processing), as it was then, shortly after Databank Systems Ltd installed a 360/40 at its new Hornby Centre in 1970.

Burroughs and ICL began to challenge IBM's domination through the late 1960's and 1970's, with a number of New Zealand installations. The State Services Commission's Thorndon Quay Centre in Wellington, was a Burroughs mainframe site, and the NZ Post Office installed two ICL (formerly English Electric) System 4/72 machines at the former old Herd St POHQ, to run the (then) substantial Savings Bank system. This had over 1200 branches online, in the 1970's and was a very large setup.

During the time we spent working on the System 4's, we had a couple of unusual environment problems, due to the bulding's proximity to Wellington's Overseas Ship Terminal. Firstly, we had to plead with visiting ships to turn their radar off before they got too close to the building. Capacitors were installed throughout the system to try and minimise radar effects, and even the curtains at the second floor windows were metal backed to try and deflect the intrusion. System crashes still occured though. Another problem also snuck up on us, - the air conditioning intakes had metal surrounds which rusted away while nobody was looking, and suddenly all the disks started having head crashes. Investigation showed that over 100 removable disk packs were damaged beyond repair, and ICL had to replace nearly all the read-write heads on the 60 or so disk drives. Most staff put in big hours to get it fixed.

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