Vietnam Battle Intelligence Computer data tapes Part 1 of 3

17 October 2014 by Stuart Bennington

When we talk about Official Records we are usually referring to records that are hand written, typed, carbon copied, mimeographed or even Photostat; but all on paper.  Yet nowadays we live in an age where records are generated mostly in an electronic format.  Only records that were created in 1987 or earlier are currently in the open access period and available to the public.  Therefore you would not expect to see too many electronic Official Records ‘on the shelves’ so to speak.  So when earlier this year we came across a 9 track magnetic tape which purported to hold data from 1971, we took interest.

The tape which is part of the AWM347 series turned out to be a back-up of data of the first computer database used by Australia in a combat theatre.  The database in question was the Battle Intelligence Computer that was trialled in Nui-Dat between March and October 1971.  The trial was to determine what advantages could be gained from the introduction of a data processing system into the intelligence section of a Brigade HQ.  The installation of the computer was a continuation of a trial which had begun several years earlier using teletypewriters and paper tape to arrange intelligence data. 

The computer itself was a digital corporation PDP8/L microcomputer, which for the time was a small computer.  Instead of a hard drive, a reel to reel tape unit was used to store data; this was a TU-56 DECtape unit which used tapes which were roughly 10cm in diameter.  Also present were two teletypewriters which could print and read paper tape and also function as regular printers.  The system was run by two operators who sat in an air conditioned purposes built enclosure which was 15’4” x 8’4” x 8’4”, the maximum dimensions that could be fit into the back of a Hercules transport aircraft.

I Div Int Unit (Det) at 1 ATF Nui Dat - staff inputting int

Operators entering data on paper tape via teletypewriters in the shelter at Nui-Dat.  Note the PDP8/L to the left of the photograph with the TU-56 tape unit below it, a DECtape is visible in the unit.  Also note the in 1971 the ‘No Smoking’ sign is for the benefit of the equipment not the operators.  Photo provided courtesy of Museum of Australian Military Intelligence, Canungra


While the trial was conducted the small DECtapes were used for data storage, this continued after the system was returned to Australia in November 1971 and the trial continued in South Australia into 1972.  At this stage many more DECtapes were used and all of the intelligence data from 1966 through 1971 was recorded.  During the trial the system was well received at Nui Dat, with the term “operational necessity” being used several times to describe its impact on operational intelligence.  However at the conclusion of the trial the system was largely forgotten, and the DECtapes disappeared from history.

In 1987 the DECtapes reappeared at the Scientific Advisers Office Canberra, where they were nearly thrown out.  Luckily they were identified for what they were, and in addition to being saved a series of 9 track tape back-ups were made.  Three of the back-up 9 track tapes and all of the remaining DECtapes were eventually sent to the Museum of Military Intelligence Canungra; one of the back-up tapes ended up with the Memorial as part of a Defence Intelligence consignment.  This is the tape that was to be the beginning of the whole saga to retrieve the data from the tapes.

to be continued in part 2