History of Computing at the University of Colombo

The computing education, research and development at the University of Colombo is more than 50 years from the formal inception of the university on 21st January 1921. The initiative of computing was started in September 1967 by Vidya Jothi Professor VK Prof Samaranayake at the Faculty of Science, University of Colombo while benefiting students and staff of other faculties, including the faculty of Arts from a course module to degree programmes both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The establishment of the Department of Statistics and Computer Science (DSCS) and the Institute of Computer Technology (ICT) were key milestones during 1980’s. The development of computing discipline at the University of Colombo resulted the establishment of first faculty of computing in Sri Lanka in 2002, as the University of Colombo School of Computing (aka the UCSC), which has become the pioneer and the leader in providing computing higher education, research and development  in Sri Lanka is the best equipped, best staffed educational institute and has the state-of-the-art computing facilities in the country. During the last two decades , the UCSC has taken giant strides to project a remarkable rectitude in providing computer education. The Computer Museum of the University of Colombo established at UCSC shows the evidence of timeline while showcasing the development of computing discipline at the University of Colombo.


University of Colombo has a legacy of computing education, research and development over five decades. The University staff under the leadership of Vidya Jothi Professor VK Prof Samaranayake has contributed to many national endeavours over a period of five decades. Among them are National elections such as General and Presidential since 1980s, scoreboard for Cricket telecast by Rupavahini Corporation in 1990s, community radio programmes to educate the nation in computing since 1970s and Community outreach programmes such as mobile computing Bus for school children and community. Dr. Roger Stern is one of the most active academics from the University of Reading, UK. Prof. V K Samaranayake implemented the long tending Reading-Colombo link with Dr. Roger through which various types of computing equipment were provided to Colombo University.

From mechanical calculators manufactured in 1960s to electro mechanical calculators in ……..[1]  to fully facilitated powerful workstations, University of Colombo and subsequently Department of Statistics and Computer Science, Institute of Computer Technology known as ICT, Department of Computer Science and UCSC established in 2002  have been pioneer and leader in computing education, research and development in Sri Lanka. Some developments were ahead of many countries in the region when computing was new to the world.

In 1967, computer programming in Fortran was introduced by the Department of Mathematics under the guidance of late Professor V.K. Samaranayake. In 1985, the Department of Mathematics evolved into two departments, the Department of Mathematics and the Department of Statistics and Computer Science (DSCS). In September, 1996, Institute of Computer Technology, University of Colombo developed the Tri-lingual National Web Site (www.lk) for the Sri Lanka government. As a landmark event in 2002, the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC) was established as the first higher learning centre of computing in Sri Lanka by the merger of the Institute of Computer Technology (ICT) and the Department of Computer Science. Over five decades of achievements, the University of Colombo has demonstrated its potential by becoming one of the leading higher educational institutes in Computer education in Sri Lanka with a significant contribution to the national development. The UCSC has taken tremendous steps to embark upon succession through community service including processing of Election and Cricket results, Community Outreach Education, and Community radio programmes. The linkages of the university made with other entities such as JAICA, Reading university, UK, have also been the supporting pillars of strength.

Milestones in Computing at Colombo

Under the Colombo – Reading, UK link established by Prof. V K Samaranayake through Dr. Roger Stern, the University was gifted with its very first computer, Hewlett-Packard 9825 Mini computer with a Card Reader. This enabled in-house computing at the University of Colombo, following which a small scale Computer Centre was established in 1977. Earliest devices available at Colombo University include Data General NOVA/4 minicomputer, Data General Eclipse S/140 Mini computer with time-sharing, multi-user interactive capabilities together with disc storage (20 MB), RAM (128 KB) and a magnetic tape drive with eight terminals. iIn 1981, Colombo university computer room was equipped with 1 IBM-PC, 1 WANG-PC, 1 Kaypro 2 and 2 RadioShack TRS80-16 computers.. Moreover through Colombo – Reading, UK link, an HP 9825 “computer”  and many BBC microcomputers (first of that kind to Sri Lanka) were received, which were very different from the now-familiar PC. This could be identified as the initial thrust towards the development of Computing at Colombo University. Starting from the year 2000, Real-time, Fullscreen, Full Motion Nonlinear Editing (NLE) System including desktop computer, IEEE 1394 interface card and software, Dual Intel Pentium II Xeon at 400 MHz, ReelTime NITRO, DV/1394 Interface card, Adobe Premiere 6.0 with support for web video and DV formats were also available.

IBM introduced the 305 RAMAC (Random Access Memory Accounting System) computer on September 13th, 1956, which was the first computer to include a disk drive named the IBM 350 Disk File. The capacity of the entire disk file was 5MB. 25 years later, in 1981, the Computing at Colombo received Data General NOVA/4 Mini computer with 5MB removable hard disk. In 1982, the first BBC Microcomputer an eight bits machine with 32KB memory running structured Basic was received. The machine, developed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for their Computer Literacy Programme was introduced at low cost, with colour, sound and data storage on audio cassettes and floppy disks. This machine provided many possibilities including processing and releasing of the results of the 1982 Presidential Elections.

Museum Collection

The Computing History Museum at UCSC showcases many facets including the proud history of over 50 years of computing at University of Colombo, decades of technology evolution and the computing machinery initially used for higher education in the country,. The collection will continue in the years to come for the future generations to inspire, educate, and showcase its legacy. Here’s how the history was made.

In the virtual museum you can see the IBM 29 card punch which was announced in 1964 to coincide with the introduction of the IBM 360. The punch and its companion, the IBM 59 card verifier, was used to record and check information in punched cards. The cards were then read and processed by a computer or an accounting machine. The IBM 29 remained in the product catalog until May 1984. The Acorn Electron was a budget version of the BBC Micro computer made by Acorn Computers Ltd. It had 32 kilobytes of RAM, and its ROM memory included BBC BASIC along with its operating system. Moreover, ‘The Electron’ was able to save and load programs onto an audio cassette via a supplied converter cable that was plugged into the microphone socket of any tape recorder. The Friden 132 was the successor to the ground breaking and very successful Friden 130. Friden 130 is historically considered as the first commercially-available solid-state desktop electronic calculator. The Kaypro II was the first computer released by Non-Linear Systems, in 1982. The Kaypro Il is unusual because the entire case is made out of metal. The IBM PC XT (eXtended Technology) was the follow-on to the wildly successful IBM PC. It was sold in basically the same box but there were numerous significant changes. The advancements then took giant strides to development and utilization of Mini computers, Micro and Mainframe machines.

The storage technology at UCSC has taken a massive leap from punch cards and floppy disks to high capacity disks. In the 1950s magnetic core memory, also known as a ferrite-core memory, was used. It used small magnetic rings made of ceramic to store information from the polarity to the magnetic field it contains. In 1956 Hard Disks were available with rotating platters, which stores and retrieves bits of digital information from a flat magnetic surface. In 1963 Music Tapes were available and in 1979, Sony’s Walkman helped the transformation of the use of audio cassette tape, which became very popular. In 1966, Robert Dennard invented Dynamic Random Access Memory technology (DRAM) cells. DRAM cells, or memory cells contained one transistor and these cells store bits of information as an electrical charge in a circuit. Computing at Colombo University also utilised 1968 Twistor Memory developed in 1968 and Bubble memory (1970). IBM started its development of an inexpensive system, geared towards loading microcode into the System/370 mainframes. As a result, the 8-inch floppy emerged in 1971. A floppy disk, a portable storage device made of magnetic film encased in plastic, made it easier and faster to store data. The CD-ROM, also known as the Compact Disk Read-Only Memory (1984), used the same physical format as the audio compact disks to store digital data. These are then followed by the exhibits in the museum such as 1992 mini disk,1993 digital linear tape, 1995 dvd, and 1997 multimedia card.

The display technology used in Computing at Colombo has initially started from mechanical projection which then improved to high-quality overhead projectors. OHPs are a variant of the slide projectors. They were introduced a few years after the slide projectors. With the discovery of liquid crystals, the introduction of the LCD technology enabled the creation of the LCD projectors. While several decades ago, displays made from them became available commercially only in the 1960s and 1970s.

The journey of printing which began with dot-matrix printers took forward steps at Colombo to reach thermal technology and then to laser printing. Dot matrix printers introduced in 1968 involved printing by mechanical pressure and these printers can create carbon copies and carbonless copies. Thereafter, Laser printers were developed in the 1970s. In addition to that, the establishment of the first internet connection in 1993, paved the way for the continuous improvement of effective communication and collaboration. The evolution of multimedia technologies of Computing at Colombo has now resulted in a fully-equipped digital studio at the UCSC.

Looking ahead, in just 10 or 20 years from now, UCSC will see even more rapid change and growth. The decisions made together today will have a great impact, and will also shape the future for decades to come. The UCSC shall work to advance computing knowledge, fostering global strategic alliances whilst promoting cross-disciplinary research to produce socially responsible professionals who can contribute to position the country as a knowledge hub in the region.