A world without computers

A world without computers

A world without computers

Studying at the old JCU campus in Townsville in the early 1970s was an adventure in more than one way. JCU’s first PhD graduate in geology, Aubrey Paverd, explains what it was like to live and study in cyclone country without air conditioning and (almost) without computers.

Aubrey Paverd studied at JCU Townsville from 1969 until late 1971. At that time, the university was still housed in an old high school building in Townsville’s CBD.

“My office, my study, was in a demountable. You know, one of those fibro buildings. The only air conditioning we had on the campus or in the geology department at that time was the analytical laboratory because the equipment had to be air conditioned,” Aubrey explains.

And whenever the young geology student had to do the 550-kilometre trip to Chillagoe to collect samples he would take his Mini, which he had bought new for $1,800. Of course, the tiny car didn’t have air conditioning. But a least, fuel prices were around 50 cents at that time – per gallon, not per litre.

Dirt road near Chillagoe. Image by Shutterstock.

Late shifts from midnight till dawn

In the 1970s, everything had to be done with pen and paper. “The only computer we had was a PDP-10,” Aubrey says. This computer had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it was big enough to occupy a whole floor of a building.

“We had to write our own programs. There was no Excel or something like that. We used to work between midnight and dawn, because that was when the computer was available to us. And so that was probably the most difficult thing of the entire thesis – trying to get computer time,” Aubrey remembers.

A computer without a screen

What made things even more complicated, was that the PDP-10 didn’t have a screen. You had to use a typewriter-like device to program it. “Just what you can do on a simple Excel spreadsheet now in half an hour would probably have taken us four or five hours, or maybe even longer.”

The geology student wrote his PhD thesis with ink on paper, which then had to be typed up for submission. Typing up was a team effort, Aubrey explained. “The secretary at JCU Townsville helped out, and my wife did a lot of the typing, too.”

Cyclone Althea destroys Townsville — but can’t blow away the samples

Aubrey was lucky to hand in his thesis just in time before Cyclone Althea, a category 4 cyclone, made landfall near Townsville on 23 December 1971. “Fortunately, my sample collection survived, because it was so heavy. The cyclone couldn’t blow it away. But the building was actually destroyed.”

It was not only his lab at JCU that was damaged. The house in which Aubrey with his wife and two little children had been living in lost its roof. Luckily, by that time, Aubrey and his family had just moved out. “I had already moved all my furniture and stuff, well, what little I had, and I had sold my car. So, I didn’t lose anything in the cyclone because whatever I had was already in storage.”

A new posting in South Africa

From Sydney, in early 1971 the family would take a ship to South Africa, which was to be their home for the next couple of years.  For his PhD title, however, Aubrey had to wait another two years. The ‘xeroxed’ copies of his manuscript had be sent by mail to the US, “and the end result was it took them forever to examine the thesis”.

Luckily, today JCU is well equipped with air conditioning, computers and cyclone proof buildings. Find out more about  studying Geology or Information Technology at JCU.   For more about JCU’s history, visit the timeline or our 50th anniversary page.


Feature image: Shutterstock

Published 25 Jun 2020
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