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computer-0001No, this is not the control room of a retro spaceship:meet the IBM 360/30, installed at the University of Otago in 1966. It could store a massive 16KB of data! By 1971 it had been expanded and, according to the university calendar, had “32K bytes of storage, a 400 cards-per-minute card-reader, a 240 lines-per minute lineprinter and two disk drives. The computer is available for use by any University department and as one of the disk drives may be used for replaceable disk packs, large amounts of information can be stored.”

University administrators caught on to the new technology and installed their own computer in the registry slightly earlier. Retired Registrar Tim Gray, who worked in the Otago registry for 40 years, remembers its arrival: it took up most of a room. Staff entered data using punch cards, and any new program required a computer expert and extensive wiring of boards. First to be computerised were enrolment data and student records, and the computer also produced bursary cheques. Gradually computer programs took over more and more of the most laborious administrative tasks, such as figuring out the exam timetable. Mr Gray first learned the art of manual exam timetabling from long-serving Academic Registrar Jean Riley. The two of them spent three weeks in August shuffling pieces of graph paper around Miss Riley’s lounge floor, until they had devised a scheme where no student had two exams on the same day!

Then, as now, computers also brought their own problems, as an “Important newsflash to all users” from 1976 reveals (printed, of course, for there was no email in those days). On 23 December disaster had struck: “the whole of the disk storage was corrupted by the writing of ‘PROCES’ in every word. This destroyed all holdfiles, all then current userfiles, the current job file, the log, and the editor tankfile.” This was, the newsflash noted, “quite a Christmas present from System 205!”

Advances in technology are perhaps the greatest change that has come to the university over recent decades. Today computers and other digital devices abound and the libraries are full of students tapping away on laptops. The University of Otago now has one of the largest IT operations in New Zealand (in 2010 only the University of Auckland and Fonterra were bigger). Some of the same rules still apply: don’t forget to back up your data! Do you remember using the early Otago computers?