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How Mr Squiggle introduced the computer age

08:15am May 24 2024

Norman Hetherington alongside Mr Squiggle, Bill Steamshovel and Gus the Snail. (National Museum of Australia

What do Westpac’s first computer and a puppet called Mr Squiggle have in common?

In 1964, the Bank of New South Wales, which later became Westpac, rolled out its first ever computer, the GE225 General Electric machine named “FABACUS”.

The name was a reference to, of course, the abacus, and its letters stood for the First Australian Bank’s Automatic Computer Used in Sydney.

Designed to speed up previously manual processes, such as sorting cheques, updating ledger balances and collating customer statements, FABACUS had about 20 kilobytes of computing power. 

That’s a fraction the size of a modern-day laptop, but at the time it was so large it took up an entire floor of a CBD building. And in the absence of air conditioning, large ice blocks were delivered daily to try and keep it cool.

FABACUS’ introduction spurred the use of new fonts, printing methods and processes to assist with machine reading such as Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR), while numbers - such as BSBs and account numbers - replaced branch and customer names.

FABACUS illustration by Norman Hetherington. (Westpac Archives)

It was genuinely revolutionary and inevitably led to concerns that machines were beginning to supercede human activity. 

That’s where Mr Squiggle comes in.

In the early 1950s, a young artist named Norman Hetherington began to submit small illustrations to accompany many of the Bank’s publications, notably the quarterly staff magazine called ‘The Etruscan’. The cartoons were hugely popular, so Hetherington’s brief was extended to other works, such as booklets welcoming new staff to the Bank.

When FABACUS was launched, Hetherington’s lively and humorous touch was called on to explain this new machine to everyone, with FABACUS seeming to take on a ‘life’ of ‘his’ own.

Hetherington, a keen puppeteer, had also created Mr Squiggle - a puppet with a pencil for a nose whose skill was making drawings from random squiggles. 

Debuting in 1959, Mr Squiggle and Friends aired on the ABC for 40 years. Generations of children were delighted by the impromptu artworks and lively, cheerful banter between Mr Squiggle - voiced by Hetherington – and his friends Blackboard, Rocket, Bill Steamshovel, and Gus the Snail. 

The National Museum of Australia recently acquired a large portion of Hetherington’s archive, including artworks, scripts, sets and puppets.

Westpac’s archives also benefitted, with a recent deposit of his drawings for the Bank, including those featured in the 1964 ‘Welcome to FABACUS’ booklet.

Hetherington, who died in 2010, enlivened and humanised many bank communications throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Giving FABACUS a name and personality eased the introduction of revolutionary new technology during an era of major change.

If it was still in use, FABACUS would have turned 60 this year. 

Mr Squiggle, however, remains ageless.

As Westpac's head of historical services, Kim has responsibility for managing the bank's corporate archives – the largest privately held archives in the Southern Hemisphere. Having commenced her career in media and journalism, Kim found her passion in historical research and documentary heritage and, prior to joining Westpac in 2015, has held a number of archivist and research roles, and was President of the Australian Society of Archivists.

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