My technological journey as a student and academic

I was explaining to a student recently how we did literature searches in the 1980s and 1990s. We had to look up articles in a printed copy of Index Medicus, and then pushed a trolley around the library to collect the journals so we could photocopy the articles. There was an incredulous look in her eyes. We had to pay for the photocopies, which made us very selective about the articles we used in our literature reviews.

And when we got to the photocopier, we had to hope that it had not broken down or that the queue to use it was too long. Arriving well before library closing time was also important. Online articles did not exist then and sometimes we had to wait for weeks for articles to arrive using the Inter-Library Loan Service if they were not in the library’s own collection. Eventually, printed copies of Index Medicus were replaced by a CD-ROM version (which you have to book a slot in advance to use) and then eventually by online bibliographic databases. And now, we have immediate access to online journal articles.

I then went onto explain that the terms ‘cut’ and ‘paste’ in modern computer programs are there because that is once what we had to do. We cut out graphs and diagrams with scissors and then pasted them into documents using glue. More incredulous looks followed. When we presented our work, we used hand written acetates on an overhead projector. Moving to printed acetates was a big step forwards (or so it seemed at the time). Presenting at professional conferences meant using (expensive) slides. Errors that you couldn’t correct were common. Eventually acetates and slides were replaced by PowerPoint projectors.

When I was a student in the 1980s, all our course work was hand-written. Most of us did not have typewriters and very few of us could type. When word processing software became common later in the decade, it meant no more Tippex or retyping whole documents to correct errors.

My first printer was a 9-pin dot matrix. It was noisy, slow and the quality of the print was poor. But it produced much more legible output than hand-written documents. Moving to 24 pin dot matrix printers was a big advance in the quality of printed documents. Eventually, affordable ink jet and laser printers became common.

Moving from cassettes to floppy disks and then hard disks for storage were big advances. My first hard disk was 20MB in capacity. Such was the size of computer programs and their data files in the 1980s, I couldn’t come close to filling it. Now a word document with some embedded images can often be larger than 20MB.

My student clearly thought I had grown up in a technological stone age. In many ways, her reaction was like mine when older people used to tell me what life was like in the 1930s and 1940s during the Great Depression and World War Two. But although the 1980s and early 1990s were a more technologically-backwards era than now, there were benefits in being a student then. We had our course fees paid and received a grant to cover our living costs, so we did not graduate with the vast debts that current students have.

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