The six o’clock swill entered the history books in 1955 in NSW and 1966 in Victoria, and no-one mourned its passing. Similarly going the way of the dinosaur, either from cultural changes or technological advances, have been 78 rpm wax records (not to mention vinyl), radio serials, fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, Roneo bulletins and innumerable other items, skills or facets of everyday life that were simply superseded by a better, or just more modern, alternative.
Of course, all things change – and the convention is that all change is for the better. As the one constant in life seems to be that change is inevitable, it is interesting to find that there persists in corners of modern existence some facets of life that just haven’t caught up with latest developments – be that from stubbornness or through just seeing no need to adjust when the old way still serves. How long they can continue on in the same way still hasn’t been resolved, and may not be for some time yet.
Gordon Feore’s mother signed him up as an apprentice to a clockmaker in 1933, when he was 12. She had to pay the clockmaker five shillings a week for the first 18 months, by which time Gordon’s younger brother Norman was old enough to start work at the same shop.
Their boss had been winding and servicing the clock in the Malvern Town Hall tower since the day it was installed; October 15, 1891. One of the first duties the young brothers took on was the weekly winding of the clock. Sixty years later, they are still winding.
The Feore brothers have never gone on holidays at the same time, so that one or the other could always be around to wind the clock. In later years, Gordon’s son Gary was able to take over if both happened to be unavailable.
The brothers bought the clockmaker’s shop from him in the late 50s, and ran the business until retiring about eight years ago. But they kept up the duty of climbing the town hall stairs once a week to turn the handle of the winder. Gary, 43, has taken on the business side, and still lends a hand at the winder when needed. He has also taken on his 17 year old son Evan as his apprentice.
It takes about 160 turns of the handle to fully wind up the clock, which Gary says he can do in about five minutes. ‘I know that Gordon takes about 15 minutes, and I don’t know about Norm,’ he says. ‘But it’s not like it’s light work.’
The clock mechanism is driven by huge weights suspended on chains. The winder simply takes the weights back up to the top, while a counter-weight keeps the clock going while winding is completed. Gary Feore says the clock won’t go more than 12 hours after the seven days have passed. Only two other adjustments each year have to be made – for the change to and from daylight saving.
Most other town hall clocks have either gone electric, or at least have an electric driven winder. But the local council has in its wisdom decided to leave the clock exactly as it was when first installed, with no concessions to modern technology – except perhaps a new human winder every 50 or 60 years.
Beta vs VCR
If you were in the market for a VCR when these new toys first started to appear in Australian lounge rooms back in the late 1970s, you might remember the dilemma posed by the choice of video systems – Beta or VHS. Of course these days they’re both superseded.
We all know that VHS won that particular retailing battle. But what happened to all those video machines that the Beta faithful forked out for, and with money that in those days was no small investment?
The answer is that Beta, although not common, is still around. It seems that the fate of these original Beta machines has been to be kept and maintained by people who are yet to be convinced that VHS offers something other than practicality.
Someone who has a hands-on appreciation of the fate of the Beta video machine is Evangelos Tzeremes, service manager at European Electronics in Beaumaris, a video TV repair service that specialises in Beta machine maintenance. And the surprising news from the shopfront is that Beta actually offers better technology than VHS.
‘The feedback we always get is that people still prefer Beta to record. And from a technical point of view they are absolutely right,’ he says. ‘The Beta picture quality and format, and hi-fi sound, is far superior to VHS.’
It seems that only Australia has determinedly relegated Beta to ‘old hat’ status. Across Europe, Beta has in no way been superseded by VHS, and Tzeremes says that in the US Beta is still quite a force in the battle for market share.
Sony developed the Beta format in Japan in 1975, and made a push to promote the technology in Australia the next year – although our Beta-VHS battle didn’t sort itself out until the mid-80s. Sony’s visual product manager, Suzanne Hume, says that the appeal of VCRs came at first from ‘time-shift’ recording – or pre-set taping for later viewing – and the two formats could vie equally for this demand. ‘In the early years there was a reliance on blank tapes,’ she says. ‘But later, pre-recorded tapes became more popular, and of course hiring tapes.’ Hume says that VHS dominance seems to have come about purely through the sort of tapes that were made available. ‘Corporate weight was thrown behind VHS,’ Hume says, and so the rest of us had to follow, even though Beta is, she says, ‘definitely the better system’.
Beta, it seems, will not go away that easily. You can still buy a new Beta machine from Sony, and Tzeremes says that a lot of people are hanging on to their old machines, and not just to play back old collections. ‘They haven’t given up on Beta, but are incorporating VHS to service their needs as well,’ he says. There is also a ‘BetaPhile Club’ on the internet.
The first computer
The first computer in Australia weighed seven tonnes, was about 7.6 metres long, 2.5 metres high and about 1.5 metres deep. It used about as much power as a small town to run, boasted about 2Kb of storage and ran at a speed (if that’s the word) of 0.001Mhz.
But perhaps the most fascinating item about this computer is that it is still with us. Well and truly superseded by today’s multi-media machines and high-powered servers, the computer is nonetheless unique in that it is the oldest intact computer in the world.
Peter Thorne, associate professor with Melbourne University’s Department of Computer Science, says that replicas of early first generation computers are being built in the UK and US. ‘But we have the only original,’ he says. ‘It was the fifth such machine built in the world.’ But it seems the rest of the world ditched theirs long ago.
The Radio Physics department of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Sydney built the computer, and ran its first program, in 1949. Called CSIRAC (for CSIR Automatic Computer), the monster machine worked on calculations for various bodies, such as the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Authority, until 1956. It was then hoisted on to a truck and sent south down the Hume Highway to the University of Melbourne, taking the age of computing to Victoria.
CSIRAC provided service until technological advances forced it into retirement in the mid-60s. When it was officially decommissioned CSIRAC was still working.
Peter Thorne was an undergraduate with the university’s computer science department in the late 1950s, later working part-time as a service engineer to CSIRAC. He became a staff member, finally progressing to associate professor and head of the department.
‘I have always had my eye on one day celebrating the fact that we have this computer here,’ he says. ‘If we had the oldest motor car in the world, or the oldest aeroplane, these would be valued as real treasures. The fact that this is a computer should make no difference.’
CSIRAC is destined to go on display in the new Museum of Victoria, but for now is housed alongside today’s most modern computers in the university’s purpose-built computer science building. Thorne says that they also have most of the original software Ñ stored on hundreds of rolls of punched paper tape.
Dunny pan man
Graham Read knows his business, and has been working in waste management for years. But every Thursday he gets up early and makes other people’s business his business. Read is a dunny man.
Once upon a time, the collection of toilet pans was a common suburban service. In the cities, access was usually gained from laneways, with the ‘night-soil’ cart picking up the full pans and replacing them with a fresh empty once a week. Collections were usually carried out very early in the morning, probably both for efficiency and decorum.
Collecting dunny pans that someone has kindly filled for you would have to be one of those ‘someone has to do it’ jobs, and yet Read takes it all in his stride. Aged 55, Read says he would be retired now if it weren’t for the pan collections. He starts very early in the morning once a week, and says he will probably keep doing it as long as there are pans to collect.
That there should be a need for such a service in these developed times is in some way a result of such development. As Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs sprawled ever further out, farming properties along the way took full advantage of the windfalls that a demand for housing provided through sub-division. Some of the farmhouses, left on a few acres of homestead property cut off from the housing estates, found themselves also isolated from sewerage pipeline grids that were brought to the new estates.
In the end it has also been a case of people using a service for as long as it is provided. Read collects from houses in suburban Moorabbin out to country Warragul, 70 kilometres away. ‘It used to be I’d do two streets and get a full load, just one house after another,’ he says. ‘Now I have to do a hundred streets.’ The contents are usually buried. In the past Read says it was sometimes buried between rows of potatoes in market gardens.
A full pan weighs up to 70 kilos, he says, and is usually 70 per cent liquid – so the contents can slop around quite a bit. But the lid is held on with a spring clip, the handler always wears gloves and the pans are hosed out and washed by machine – so contact should theoretically be nil. ‘You used to hear some horror stories about pans breaking open or spilling on blokes,’ Read says, ‘but I’ve never had it. Anyway it all washes off.’
Although the odour may count on the negative side for most people, Read says it is something he just doesn’t notice. ‘But it’s like if you work on a garbage truck. It stinks to everyone else, but you get used to it yourself.’ Even so, he says there have been lots of times when he is blamed him for a smell that really wasn’t his fault. ‘But it’s mainly kids who say anything,’ he says.
Railway gate opener
On the morning of her 16th birthday, Edna Munn started work opening and shutting by hand the huge railway crossing gates behind her family home at Werribee, south west of Melbourne. Forty one years later, Munn is still shoving crossing gates.
It all started when her father couldn’t find work in Balranald, NSW, in the early ’50s, so the family moved to Melbourne and to a job with the railways. They were provided with a house right on the tracks and a job each for Munn’s parents – rotating shifts opening and closing the crossing gates.
Not long after, the Munns asked about a job for their daughter, who was helping her mother on the odd shift anyway. ‘They said to my parents that I was too young to take it on, but to send me back when I turned 16 and I could get a job,’ she says. So on the day of her birthday, she walked across the lines to the gatekeeper’s hut for the first shift of a lifetime career.
That helped spread out the work in the Munn family, as the Werribee line ran 24 hours, but the frequency of trains kept increasing. “It got too busy there, so they put the booms in (automatic boom gates), and we moved to Brunswick,” she says. And she has been working the gates of the inner Melbourne suburb’s train line ever since.
She would happily keep doing it too, if it weren’t for the planned upgrade and automation of her line, the last to have manually operated crossing gates as the rule rather than the exception.
She says that really there isn’t much she would change about her job. Trains come about every 20 minutes, so there is time for a cup of tea or a meal. Her tiny weatherboard hut, which hugs the tracks, has most of the comforts of home – a small oven and grill, a kettle, radio, some indoor plants, any food, snacks and drinks she cares to bring in and plenty of magazines and newspapers.
Really the only limitations she must work with are that she is not allowed to have a television, she cannot leave her post by the tracks for any length of time, except for toilet breaks between trains, and she has to wear a yellow reflective vest. Munn works two shifts – the morning starting at 5.40am and the afternoon ending at 7.15pm – and she rotates between them, swapping with another gatekeeper.
A bell sounds in her hut when a train is coming: “One long one if it’s coming from Melbourne and two short ones for the other way.” A schedule pinned near the door lists train times – “upside” for trains heading into Melbourne, “downside” for trains leaving the central station. The big and very solidly built gates are not hard to push, she says, except on windy days. Levers set in the ground outside operate the locks on both sets of gates. One operates the signal that gives the all-clear to the train drivers.
If there’s a second train coming the other way it is entirely up to her to judge whether to leave the gates closed or not. “Of course when you’re doing one gate at a time you get car drivers that are a bit impatient,” she says, “and when you’re getting to the next gate they just barge through. But if they hit the gates, it’s their fault – and I’ve had a few gates hit like that.”
Munn says pedestrians too sometimes can’t wait, even though she generally has those gates locked. “I’ve seen people just jump the fence anyway,” she says. “They can see the trains from there and reckon they’ve got time.”
But it is the people she comes across that can make Munn’s day. “I like the people you meet on the job. You can walk over to someone and have a chat. Or the next gatekeeper might walk up between trains and come in and have a talk. There’s something going on all the time,” she says.
Generally the train drivers give her a wave on their way through. “And I only found out a couple of month’s back that one of the drivers along this line I went to school with in NSW. He was going past and yelled out to me,” she says. “I couldn’t place him, but next time he slowed down and passed me a note as he was going through. He saw my name somewhere and recognised it, and chased it up and found out who I was. Small world.”
The shed gets very hot in summer, as it is exposed and faces west. But she has an electric fan, and is luckier than the gatekeepers whose sheds have been ‘upgraded’ to pre-fabricated metal. The old weatherboard buildings, as well as having character, are also kinder on the occupants.
There used to be a fireplace in each shed, but they were deemed to pose a fire risk and have been filled in. She has a small electric heater to take the chill off the early morning starts.
There is a small garden on one side of her hut, the flower beds kept tidy with cast-off iron joining plates from the train track. The gatekeeper on the other shift prefers to keep a vegie patch growing nearby.
But the gatekeepers’ daily routine may soon change forever. Tony Chiera, line manager for Upfield (the name of the track on which Munn works) says that his line is the last in Victoria, bar one lone gate on another line, to have manually operated gates. So the luxury of automatic gates may finally catch up with the last of the gatekeepers. “They’ve been saying for years, a long long time, that they’re going to upgrade the line,” she says. “And I suppose one day they will.”
The railways brought Munn and her husband together. He used to operate platform indicators, which listed train times for passengers. But the installation of new machines left his job redundant. Her eldest son (they have three children) also worked on the railways as an electrician, but he was made redundant four years ago, although he has since found other work.
So assuming Munn’s job will also go when the gates are made automatic, that will make three members of the one family that will have lost their jobs in a similar way. “But until then I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing until they tell me not to,” she says.
This first appeared in Australasian Post magazine