Top 50 philanthropic gifts include two at the University of Sydney

14 October 2013

The contribution to Australian society made possible by two philanthropic gifts to the University of Sydney have seen them feature in a top 50 philanthropic gifts list published today.

SILLIAC was the first supercomputer built in an Australian university, in 1956 thanks to the generosity of Adolph Basser.
SILLIAC was the first supercomputer built in an Australian university, in 1956 thanks to the generosity of Adolph Basser.

The 50 gifts were chosen for being inspirational and having a lasting impact on Australia's cultural and physical landscape, rather than simply for their monetary value.

Following a nomination process by the general public the list was compiled by the Top 50s Working Group, consisting of Pro Bono Australia, Philanthropy Australia, Swinburne University's Asia-Pacific Centre for Social Investment and Philanthropy, The Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund.

Projects funded by the gifts include the Heart Foundation, the Walkley Awards, the Parkes Telescope, St Vincent's Institute of Medical Research, the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience, the No Interest Loan Scheme and the establishment of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.

The two gifts associated with the University of Sydney are the Challis bequest and funding for the supercomputer SILLIAC, as outlined below.

Having arrived in Sydney with no money or expectations John Henry Challis built a fortune through real estate and as a merchant. His bequest, in 1880, of £276,000 to the University of Sydney transformed Australia's first university. The money was used to establish chairs in anatomy, zoology, engineering, history, law, logic and mental philosophy, and modern literature.

The bequest helped the university expand into new disciplinary areas at the same time as it celebrated the potential of private endowments for the extension of knowledge.

"The power of the Challis endowment," said Dr Michael Spence, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University, "is the flexibility the gift provides, as true in 1880 as it is today, to apply the funds to exciting new initiatives for the future development of the university."

The Challis bequest still exists and has kept pace with inflation.

The size of a double-decker bus, containing 2,800 vacuum tubes and programed with paper tape, SILLIAC was the first supercomputer built in an Australian university, in 1956.

The Sydney version of the Illinois Automatic Computer was instrumental in the development of the Snowy River hydroelectric project as it was used to design dams and tunnels.

It led to the development of the first payroll system, was used by Australia Post to design telephone switching gear and by Woolworths for its first inventory studies. Most importantly it led to the development of information and communications technology studies in Australia.

The computer was created thanks to the generosity of Dr Adolph Basser who won the 1951 Melbourne Cup and donated the £50,000 prize money to the University, contributing a further £50,000 in 1954.

The dynamic new head of the University of Sydney's School of Physics, Professor Harry Messel, had persuaded Dr Basser, who did not know much about computers, of the impressive potential of a supercomputer.

Contact: Alex Green

Phone: 02 9036 6188

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