IT at Sussex; going back a bit…

Can you imagine a campus with no WiFi? A library with no internet, no electronic catalogue, the whereabouts of books signalled only by scribblings on cards and absolutely zero online journals. Not even a photocopier. Imagine no phone app (it’s easy if you try). Imagine no Study Direct, no online timetables, no e-Submissions. Cluster rooms with no, er, computer clusters. No emails from the school office or the hundreds of societies you joined at Freshers’ Fair. Not even an IT username – now that’s stripping a Sussex student of their very identity, surely. But of course, with its red bricks, East Slope, the badgers and the seagulls, Sussex predates all that technology by decades. Being a student or a member of staff here in the 1960s and 1970s would have been a very different experience.

The university, established in 1961, was quick off the mark to develop a computing facility. Initially, it existed to support the administration of the university, logging HR information and dealing with the payroll using information coded onto paper tape. At the outset, whilst the computers themselves only existed in one location on campus, admin staff would create the punched paper tape which would then be taken by porters to the Data and Statistics Office who would enter the information from the paper tape onto the central computer.


This machine was used to punch holes in paper tape, which would then transfer the information to a computer.


Paper tape – this means something to something, apparently. Very clever.

paper tape reader

A paper tape reader.

In addition to this work, the computing team also supported basic library functions as well as researchers and academic faculty, mostly scientists and the social scientists who were already using an early version of SPSS in the 1970s. The machines were in one large room; the memory units were the size of wardrobes while the processor was the same size as a van. All this couldn’t even store a megabyte of data, but were still working in kilobytes.

The machine room in 1982  with DEC VAX-11 computers.

The machine room in 1982 with DEC VAX-11 computers.

Until the late 1980s most administrative staff were working on typewriters; older models were replaced by electric “golf ball” typewriters, so named because of the interchangeable “type ball” containing the letters, symbols and numbers in varying fonts (they are strange and beautiful things).


Each department had a small army of secretaries to deal with the demand of paperwork and communications; “instant” messages were left in the form of memos in pigeonholes, the closest you could get to a quick email about lecture room changes. When computers started to make it into school offices, it was in the form of Ataris, Amstrads and BBCs; it was a long time until any central purchasing system came into play so schools bought their own equipment… and then found that from department to department things were not compatible.


The Arts Computing Unit, which in the mid to late 1980s was located in Arts B, operated a conversion service, using a patch panel to connect different devices which helped somewhat with the incompatibility issues. This unit also offered a printing service before they became office mainstays, when printing was still done on that stripy thin paper with the holes you could tear off down the side. Dot matrix printers were the very noisy standard, a feature that now has become their sole worth – someone clever worked out that the movements of the printer could be manipulated to make “tunes”. You’ve always wanted to hear the Wallace & Gromit theme tune played on a printer, haven’t you? (If these are your new tunes of choice or you just really want to hear a printer play Eye Of The Tiger, then here are some more).

Email began to be used amongst some members of staff in the early 1990s, but it wasn’t until several years later that it became more popular. Students initially had to request to join email and were then granted an email address; they weren’t allocated as standard until the late 1990s.

The university website sprung into a grainy kind of action around 1997; this is what it looked like then:

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 10.00.52

Strolling round the archived version of the page, we could see what movies the Gardner Arts Centre (now the Attenborough Centre) back in 1998 – somehow the movies don’t seem as dated as the HMTL. Does technology move at a different speed to popular culture…?!

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 10.02.08

In a recent post, I looked at the changes in equipment that students are using. One in four new students registered a tablet on the IT network this September, up from one in eight three years ago and only one in every 600 brought a desktop with them whereas a decade ago that number would have been much greater. With the rate that technology changes year on year, it’s almost impossible to say which of today’s technological staples will look, in three decades’ time, like archaic curios of staggeringly low capabilities.

Which IT item would you miss the most if you were at Sussex in the ’70s?

Historical IT@Sussex bits and pieces

  • Email addresses used to be the other way round, so they’d be (academic institutions were the first along with the military and government to get use of the internet and email).
  • Professor Dick Grimsdale, a Sussex lecturer and later dean of the School of Applied Sciences in the 1970s, was the first to send a transatlantic email, from the UK to America.
  • The first cluster computers used Windows 3.
  • Windows 3

    Windows 3

Many thanks to Andy Clews and Liz Davis, long-serving ITS colleagues who let me pick their brains for this post.
Photo/Picture locations:
Red Selectric typewriter:
BBC Micro:
Paper tape:
Type Balls:

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