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01 Early AMC

1972: Arrival at CCAE and Peter O'Halloran

When I commenced work in February 1972 at the Canberra College of Advanced Education, one of the more senior members of the mathematics staff, Peter O'Halloran, took a lot of interest in me. In a sense you could say he became a mentor.

One could say it was a little unusual as on the surface he had no interests in common with me. He was an active family man with four children. I was a young single person.

We would often have morning or afternoon tea together, discussing possible projects. He was about to become the first CCAE academic to take study leave. He had arranged to take six months at the Canadian firm Glass Containers, where he was to develop his skills in Operations Research, and a further period at the University of Waterloo, which Bernhard Neumann had recommended to him because of their strong department of Combinatorics, his other main interest. The following article appeared at that time in the Canberra News, which was an afternoon paper published at the time.

1973: Peter's return

In mid 1973 Peter returned, full of enthusiasm. Both of his destinations had been good, but at the University of Waterloo he had seen people running a mathematics competition for school students. This was exactly the kind of activity he was looking for.

1974 and 1975: Recruiting the Troops

Peter and I continued to spend long hours talking about this. He asked if I was prepared to be on the committee. He didn't have any trouble recruiting me. I had seen the value of school enrichment while a student in Adelaide. I was in a very large honours year, but most of the students came from two Adelaide schools, schools in which a teacher at one of them ran special classes for talented students and also had them competing in a statewide competition. Whereas I had two very good mathematics teachers at school I felt the students from these two schools always had a head start as a result of this enrichment. They seemed a lot more mature and adapted to things better than I felt I did. Maybe because they had seen some things before.

But I was not the only one. Peter was hunting around, further in our department, further in the University, further in the city using Peter's teacher network from being the President of the Canberra Mathematical Association. Things were ready to strike ...

1976 April 11: The first meeting

Peter had his troops in readiness and called the first meeting at his house on 11 April 1976. I remember the atmosphere very well. There was a special excitement in the air.

The attendees can be seen in the above agenda papers, in Peter's handwriting. The key three, other than Peter, as it turned out, would be Warren Atkins, Jo Edwards and myself, because we all worked fairly closely together at the CCAE so could convene easily. It was decided to run a competition from scratch almost immediately.

Peter, astutely, had studied the structure of the US and Canadian Competitions. The weakness of the US competition was that it was a department of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and was not independent. The Canadian one was based at the University of Waterloo. It had been founded initially by Ralph Stanton to act as a recruiting device for the newly founded University. Waterloo was successfully recruiting the best students from all over Canada, drying up the supply of the most talented students to traditionally strong Universities. Academics from these Universities would not volunteer to help the enemy.

We were certainly going to be independent, and the Canberra CAE was hardly a threat to any strong University, so we would be able to recruit volunteers from anywhere, in particular to start with at the Australian National University. Laci Kovacs was on the initial committee, and through the years Mike Newman, Bob Bryce and Martin Ward continued to have a strong presence, in particular on problems committees.

The organising structure in the first instance was interesting. It was deemed important to separate organisation from problems creation. In the first year Peter kept an eye over everything, while Warren headed the first Problems Committee and I headed an administration committee. Jo Edwards had a talented son at school so for the following year she and I traded places, with me transferring across to the Problems Committee. Before long however the Problems Committee, while ultimately reporting to the main committee, was independent and signed off on its own papers.

1976 July: The first competition

But first we had a job to do. Warren had to get a paper ready in a couple of months. To do this, and with Waterloo's approval, he heavily leaned on material available from them. It was decided to establish high integrity, and to do this, even in the first year with limited time he took a paper through three complete rounds of moderation. This system was to pay off in the end. We have never had a serious typo or mathematical mistake in our competition and schools and students as a result have confidence in the papers.

Peter was busy getting sponsorship and he persuaded the computer company Burroughs, the mainframe supplier on our campus, to put up prize money.

But first we had no money and needed to print the exam papers, a job too big for us to get through the CCAE printing service unnoticed. Peter decided to approach the Principal, the legendary Dr SS (Sam) Richardson for this printing approval and for encouragement in general. He decided to take me with him as a "witness". We were not sure what to expect, but Sam was kind and approved the printing of these papers. A couple of weeks ago Registrar Graham Eadie spotted Peter and me on campus and questioned us re a printing bill he had for $92. We explained Sam had approved it and Sam kept to his word. This $92 might go down as a classic case of effective venture capital as it turned out. After that we got entry fees of 20 cents and we were financially viable from then on.

My job was to get the invitation letters out to the ACT schools. We just set one paper in each of the first two years, and this just covered years 7 to 10, so the targets were the Canberra High Schools which taught between those years. In the government schools the traditional year 7 to 12 high schools, as they had been when under the NSW system, had already been changed. So in Canberra most High Schools had become 7 to 10 only under the new schools authority while a small number had been changed to Year 11 and 12 "Colleges" with the aim of easing the approach to University. We did not need to approach the "Colleges".

We had been very nervous about our use of the word "Competition" as this was not a popular word. It had equated to "pressure" and government schools in Canberra no longer had sports teams even from about this time. However to our surprise every school which was invited accepted, and we had in our first effort more than 1300 entries.

One of my main next tasks was to consign an exam number for every contestant. I spent many hours over several night sitting up in my office processing this. The following year we decided it was not needed.

There were other things going on. In line with the US and Canada, despite it not being ideal, we had designed the paper to be multi-choice, with answers indicated on sheets in pencil to be read by optical readers. No one in Canberra had readers so Peter had arranged for the scripts to be read on to magnetic tape at the University of New South Wales. This tape was to be returned to Canberra, where Rich Yorke and colleagues had written a program to enable the tape to be read on our Burroughs computer and processed.

1976: The presentation ceremony

Peter was not one to leave an aspect to chance, or to waste an opportunity. The results were out and being distributed to schools. But there was a need for a grand ceremony. Speech Nights are important for school bonding, and ceremonies were important for developing our networks. Peter decided to go for the Federal Minister for Education, Senator John Carrick, and he accepted. The first event was held in the newly completed 9A1 lecture theatre and Burroughs medals were awarded to the top students. These included a later to be famous mathematics professor in Ezra Getzler, from Deakin High School, who got the top score.

For the record, in fact, there were three medallists, as follows:

Ezra Getzler Deakin High School Year 10
John Clarke Ginninderra High School Year 10
Benjamin Thorne Narrabundah College Year 10

Peter arranged first a lunch with Senator Carrick. Our ability in the future to get important people on to the campus, and in turn get in to places like Government Houses always kept us in good favour with our Principal Sam Richardson. Sam had it in his diary as soon as the date was known.

1976: Publications

In addition to the ceremony it was decided to produce a book which included the questions, solutions, statistics and most importantly the names of the winners, which meant parents wanted them as souvenirs, as well as schools wanting the solutions for their libraries.

The sales were astronomical and gave us an independent form of income to help develop the activities.

1976: Going National

The competition in 1976 was so successful that we decided to go national. This was to involve a repeat of the event, but with selected schools from interstate involved as a pilot scheme for national participation in 1978.

As part of the process it was important to get the competition known in the profession around Australia, and to this extent Peter O'Halloran and various among us made presentations at conferences around Australia. These included conferences including those of the Australian Mathematical Society (AustMS), Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT), and even further afield to conferences such as ANZAAS. Bruce Henry recalls a session at an AAMT Conference which he believes was at Monash in 1976. When the audience of 20 or 30 was asked if there was a Victorian volunteer, Bruce looked around and noticed that he and Jane Breidahl (later to be a member of the AMC Problems Committee) were the only two Victorians in the room, so he put his hand up to be Victorian State Director. He was chastised by long-standing friends for being involved in such an elitist activity, with elitism being out of favour generally at the time. But he says they later apologised.

1977: Money

The offices used to this point of time were just our own personal ones. The maths secretary Maree Beer had handled all money and she now had a tin containing $110, which we had to work out what to do with. My recollection is that cheques in 1976 had been made out to the University and we could reclaim. But it was time for us to open our own account, and also to get a Treasurer. Our colleague as mathematics lecturer Peter Brown agreed to take this on. He was treasurer for some time and one of the strongest contributors to policy over many of the coming years.

1977: Good Progress

The year 1977 was the pilot year. Peter O'Halloran was building up contacts around Australia and identified several schools to be invited to write our local competition. It all worked very well, with all states involved on this selective basis and numbers grew to about 4500.

For the record, in fact, there were again three medallists, as follows:

Christopher Chantler Hollywood Senior High School WA Year 10
Helen Dunstan Watson High School ACT Year 10
John O'Brien Marist Brothers St Joseph's College NSW Year 10

The ongoing management group was also taking shape. In 1978 the first staff member, Sally Bakker, was appointed. In fact she was appointed as a CCAE staff member as the competiotion yet had no legal identity. She was to stay more than 25 years, mostly as Manager.

Whereas Rich Yorke had returned to England, Charlie Clark, head of the Computer Programming discipline at the CCAE had become the computing consulant, and for several years he was to be in charge of the software development and maintenance.

1978: The first AMC

I took Study Leave and was physically away, at The Open University in Britain for the year. But I kept in very good touch with the people at home and was well aware of all the activity going on. And this activity was intense, on many fronts.

The most significant news to start the year was the procurement of a new sponsor. To mount a national competition it was considered we needed more sponsorship than Burroughs could offer, albeit Burroughs had been good to us. Peter O'Halloran made a major coup when he successfully negotiated significantly enhanced sponsorship from the Bank of New South Wales.

A bank was seen as an ideal partner for the competition, and the "Wales" was one of the leaders, the oldest bank and an icon in the industry, enabling the competition to be seen as having imprimatur from the top, possibly more important in itself than the sponsorship consideration.

Then there was the name. Probably brashly, we went for a national name and named the competition the Australian Mathematics Competition.

At the local level, volunteers, such as those of us academics on the committee, had been able to do much of the heavy lifting on infrastructure. But for this we needed staff and in 1978 Sally Bakker was appointed. Sally had a background working for companies like IBM, which indicated that she was a good organiser, and this did indeed turn out to be the case. Sally was in fact to be the mainstay of our staff for almost 30 years, creating a unique staff culture which still exists. This involved helping staff to feel part of a family, with various personal things like birthday recognition reinforcing this belief. Sally also joined the committee and to the day of this writing (2013) is still the Deputy Chair of the committee as it has now evolved.

And, furthermore, with staff and increased need for logistical support, we also needed an office. As with any University or College, space is difficult to compete for, but a room, possibly bigger than a lecturer's, and certainly big enough to house two staff was found near the offices of the three Peters, as we became to often be known.

So the staff and office lifted the weight off some of us, and allowed us to concentrate more on things like problems creation, and our normal academic duties. However there were other functions which were not taken up by staff for many years. Peter Brown continued to manage all the finance personally, and Charlie Clark, and later other volunteers such as David Clark and Bob Thompson managed all the program writing and systems work for a number of years before IT specialists were appointed.

The competition itself was a raging success, attracting to our astonishment over 60,000 entries, including some from New Zealand, and talent was being discovered. A report on the competition and the medallists can be found here. Again, Canberra student Ezra Getzler's name appeared among the leading students, but this time nationally.

Probably the most enduring image from the 1978 competition though was that of the VIPs, led by the Governor General, Sir Zelman Cowen AK, but accompanied by the Chairman of the Bank of New South Wales, Sir Noel Foley, to his right as they made their way to the hall where the presentation would take place. At the left is also Jo Edwards, then Peter O'Halloran, and at the right are Sam Richardson and Doug Waterhouse. Doug Waterhouse, Chairman of the Canberra CAE Council, was also Chief of the CSIRO Division of Entomology, and had been instrumental in the development of the commercial Aerogard product. Official Secretary of the Governor General, Sir David Smith, can be seen behind Sam Richardson's right shoulder.

[1978 VIPS]

The photo below is of Sir Zelman with the medallists. Next to Sir Zelman is Sir Noel Foley, Chairman of the Bank of New South Wales, who was a regular attender of our national award ceremonies for many years.

[1978 Medallists]

1979: Further growth

Until late 1978 there was in fact no committee. People were operating from their offices. In late 1978 a Management Committee was formed and a first meeting was held on 04 December. Those who attended were Peter O'Halloran, Jo Edwards, Warren Atkins, Peter Brown, Charlie Clark, Sally Bakker and Maree Beer, with Accounting Lecturer John Shanahan attending as a guest, as he had agreed to conduct the first audit.

At the beginning of 1979 I had returned home and resumed an active role with the committee. While at the Open University I had helped Warren Atkins to follow me in taking Study Leave there, as an active mathematics education group, led by John Baker, within the Maths Faculty, promised useful experience for him. So the main decision was for me to take over from him as Chairman of the Problems Committee.

The Competition experienced a large increase from 1978, passing the 100K mark. It was clearly becoming a major event on the Australian school calendar. A fuller report, detailing medallists, may be found here.

[Bill de Boos]

The Guest of Honour at the national award ceremony was distinguished scientist Sir McFarlane Burnett, but in this photo Mr Bill de Boos, of the Bank of New South Wales, presents an award. Mr de Boos was a senior executive believed to have been critical in securing the sponsorship.

1980: Supernova

The 1980 year saw entries grow to over 150K. Professor Bernhard Neumann, who was our mentor, was now describing the AMC as a "supernova". A fuller report, detailing medallists, may be found here.

[Sir Roden Cutler]

Guest of Honour Sir Roden Cutler VC AK is shown here awarding a medal to Mari Masuda, a perfect scorer in the Senior Section, from Kincoppal, Rose Bay.


The 1980 year saw a visit from three distinguished visitors from North America, who had been so influential on us. From left are Professors Ken Fryer and Ron Dunkley, from the University of Waterloo, Canada, Peter O'Halloran, and Professor Walter Mientka, Director of the US competitions, based at Lincoln, Nebraska.

Peter Taylor,
Mar 30, 2014, 6:34 PM
Peter Taylor,
Nov 24, 2013, 5:11 AM