125 years of school technology

Tech moves on at such a great pace in the 21st century that it can be easy to forget what it meant in the pre-digital world and to the earliest teachers and children at North School.  The log books have again been a rich source, telling us when new equipment arrived at school and the difference it has made.

Children using a magic lantern (North School Archive).

The first mention of technology used in a learning context is in 1898 when

magic lantern slides were shown to children around the school.  The projector was supplied by the Colchester Education Board and was obviously very popular as there were several repeated shows, including slides from the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924.

Twelve hand-coloured slides for a magic lantern 1913 – 1920. Science Museum Group Collection. Copyright The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The lantern was replaced in 1927 and in March 1930 headteacher Captain Twyman reports:

“During this week we have had six lessons with the projector.  It works well and the teachers have prepared many pictures for their lessons, Geography, History, Scripture and Nature Study.” 

In November 1930, one of the senior boys gave a lesson to his class using the projector and this teaching approach was so well received that the log book tell us “we have arranged that the projector can now be used in every room, also the wireless.” 


Audio equipment was used from at least 1925 when a “Wireless Fund” was set up and two fundraising events held, raising £12.11s.  We don’t know when the radio was bought but it was in school in 1930 for the King’s speech at the Five Power Naval Conference.   In 1927 gramophone records were borrowed by North School from the Columbia Gramophone Company to illustrate a lecture given for the centenary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s death. This technology again proved useful in school and in 1928 the log book tells us that a gramophone was purchased, mainly to be used for country dancing.  Later, records were replaced by cassette tapes and a tape recorder was purchased in 1966 for £25.4s.

Television was the next development in audio-visual technology in school although it’s not clear when the school bought its first TV.  BBC Schools, a dedicated schools’ programming service had launched in 1957, so perhaps it was around that time.  In 1967 the upper school watched the launch of the ship QE2 on TV, and significant events have continued to be watched or listened to in school, including the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002.  The 1960s TV was black and white, and it was not until January 1982 that Roger Kettle writes “much to everyone’s delight the first of our two colour televisions arrived”.  

Television from 1954. Science Museum Collection. Copyright The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

Computers started to arrive from 1983 when the headteacher went to County Supplies to collect the computer and learn how to use it. Eight years later the school office was computerised, and in 1998 the ICT suite was opened with 8 computers for students to use.

A new phone line in 1996, paid for by Colchester Sixth Form, meant that North was one of the first primary schools to connect to the internet.  From 2005 digital technology rapidly made its way to individual classrooms, with interactive boards installed and increasing use of tablets.  This facilitated a web call in 2007 to a school in South America.  Alan Garnett describes the

“most exciting… a live web link with Ecaudor.  We used a Spanish translator to enable the children to speak to children in their own classroom in Ecuador.  Absolutely amazing.”

One of the first cyclostyle copying machines. Bellamar2010 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
Of course technology isn’t just used in the classrooms or by children and teachers.  It’s hard to imagine a workplace today without some very practical office equipment, not only computers, but telephones and photocopiers too.   In 1895, John Harper records sending a letter to all parents using a “cyclostyled circular calling attention to the fact that our course of lessons in practical cookery will commence.”  This was a stencil form of copying that had been patented in the late 19th century so was fairly new technology when used in school.  It was certainly new and unusual enough for it to be recorded in the log book. 

“At last” records Mr Chisnell as telephones were finally installed in school in 1942.  There had been a phone in 1936, but only one and on loan from the General Post Office, which was also being used by students

Telephone c1936

for speech training.  The 1940s system was overhauled in 1965 when a centrally controlled bell system, to notify timings in the school day, was also installed.

Many years before, in 1897, bells had also been a vital part of school security.  John Harper records that an electric bell was fitted to the school gates out of necessity because:

“there is a widespread impression abroad that a Board School, being rate-aided, any payer has a right of entrance at any time!!  Consequently it has been no unusual thing for a person to stroll into the hall with his hat on, and occasionally with a pipe in mouth!!”

Modernising the school’s services with necessary and safe fittings started in 1926, replacing gas with modern electric lighting, seemingly just in time as the log book records “the gas was in a very bad state, pipes being choked and leaking.”

Crucially, technology has also helped to keep parents informed.  The early days of  a cyclostyled circular have now been replaced by a website from  2002 and electronic parentmail from 2010.