introduced government and business to computers
Barry graduated with a double degree in science and engineering from Sydney University in 1951, with a focus on the emerging technology of computers. By 1953 he was working in London for Britain’s General Electric Company and publishing articles in The Institution of Electrical Engineers journal on a range of computing topics, including information theory.
In 1955 he was recruited by the young Professor of Physics at Sydney University, Harry Messel, to be part of a team building SILLIAC, only the second major computer to be constructed in Australia and one of the fastest computers on the planet at the time. Barry’s role was to oversee quality control for construction of the behemoth computing machine (SILLIAC occupied much of a large Physics School laboratory) – a job he lived and breathed for over a year (much to the chagrin of his fiancée, Janet Burstal, who saw little of him in the lead-up to their wedding in 1956).
Despite what today seems a derisory amount of data storage (measured in kilobytes), SILLIAC introduced government, industry and business to using computers: what is now Australia Post developed its first payroll machine drawing on SILLIAC’s capability, driven by software Barry helped develop.
While Harry Messel wished to keep Ferranti in the Physics School to strengthen its computing credentials, he was drawn to the potential commercial applications offered by computers and left the project to head up IBM’s operations in NSW from 1958. He did, however, do the university a great favour by recommending John Bennett be hired for the SILLIAC team. Bennett subsequently became Australia’s first Professor of Computing Science and headed up the university’s Computing Department for many years.
Ferranti’s vision was always international and he seized the opportunity to work for Ferranti Ltd in the 1960s, working for them in London for a period and then running its Australian arm, International Computers Limited, for several years before moving to New York to manage the US operations. Australian employees recall his charming leadership style: the boss would greet each new recruit at the firm with an arm around the shoulder, followed by an introduction to the entire office.
The premature death of his father meant having to return from New York in 1970 – as an only child, he was committed to supporting his mother through such a difficult time. Ill-luck turned to good fortune, however, when he embarked on a new career direction, establishing himself as an independent computer and management consultant.
Throughout the 1970s-90s, he advised major businesses, federal and NSW government departments, as well as organisations in the Asia-Pacific on which mainframe systems would best suit their management needs. A key 1973 report (co-authored with Barry Smith and known as the ‘Barry-Barry Report’) defined Australian tertiary education’s computer needs for a decade, by examining the social, economic and educational impact of the relatively new technology.
Ferranti never stopped contributing to technology development. Even at age 85, he saw the potential of bringing together retired professionals in an organisation he named Belforce (‘benevolent elders and leaders’ force’) to continue to use their knowledge and experience to make a difference to society.
In collaboration with Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre’s translational gerontology project and the engineering faculty, Belforce piloted development of a smartphone app to help anticipate and avert falls by older people. His inspiration for Belforce grew out of becoming carer for his long-time partner Wendy Matthews in the final years of her life.
Ferranti was also endowed with a strong desire to give back to the community. He held office several times at the Australian Computer Society, and was devoted to his school, North Sydney Boys High, remaining an active member of the Old Falconians Union throughout his adult life. Together with prominent Sydney lawyer Frank Robertson, he raised significant funds for the school in the 1970s which led to the building of squash courts, named after Ferranti’s schoolfriend, Olympian John Treloar. He was also active in Rotary for several decades, supporting a number of international students on study exchange, and most recently was a member of the Ageing and Alzheimers Institute at Concord Hospital, raising funds for research.
Barry Ferranti outlived wife Janet by 25 years; he is survived by his five children, Richard, Hugh, Margi, Louisa and Melanie, and nine grandchildren.
Richard de Ferranti
Barry de Ferranti: 1928-2019