The evolution of office technology: From the typewriter to the tablet

The evolution of office technology: From the typewriter to the tablet

Summary: A journey through 40 years of office tech.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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  • For decades people have spent the majority of their working lives sitting in offices.

    But while offices are still commonplace, today's workplace has very little in common with that of our grandparents' generation. Typewriters have given way to computers, computers and phones have shrunk down to devices we can carry in our pocket and ubiquitous internet means work is always with us, for better or worse.

    The contribution of modern technology to each worker's productivity is nearly five times greater today than it was in the 1970s, according to a study by the Centre for Economic and Business Research, conducted on behalf of telecoms operator O2.

    This scene captures the office of the 1950s and 1960s, from the solid metal Remington typewriter to the bulky Bakelite hand-dialled telephone. The receptionist would generally have operated the switchboard and routed all of the calls. 

    The mock-up is part of an exhibition showing the evolution of the office over the past 40 years to mark the launch of The O2 Business Show Live in the Business Design Centre in Islington, London.

    In the 50s and 60s, the typewriter, 100 years old at the time, was a standard piece of equipment in the office. Computers were still in their infancy and IBM was establishing the Selectric as the de facto standard typewriter in offices, replacing the raucous clack of the older typebar machines with its quieter gyrating typeballs.

    Workplace roles were more unequal than today, with women generally employed to do the typing for men.

    At the time the annual UK salary was just over £100, with 70 percent of British workers employed in manual labour. It wasn't until this time that it became the norm in Britain to work five days a week rather than six.

    All images Nick Heath/ZDNet

  • A close up of the Remington typewriter.

  • The rather staid beige and brown décor of the 1970s contrasted with leaps forward in technology.

    As more calculator logic was squeezed onto fewer integrated circuits, electronic calculators became small and cheap enough to find their way onto many office desks.

    Meanwhile, cassette tape and dictaphones provided new ways to record and access information.

    Carbon paper was also cheap enough that multiple copies of a document could be typed in a single sitting, and the advent of electric typewriters made the process even easier. Correction fluid, such as Tipp-Ex, meant minor typographical errors could be corrected easily, reducing the need to retype an entire document.

    Office layouts were being simplified, with designers working their furniture schemes around what was called the G-plan.

    One of the first executive toys to creep onto desks during this time was the Newton's Cradle.

Topic: Hardware

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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12 comments
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  • Changes!

    I remember the manual Royal typewriters that I learned to type on. I remember the rotary phone with party lines. Today I have a Surface Pro, i-Core 7 Desktop and a Lumia 920 phone to do my work with. Thanks for reminding me just how old I really am!
    Foreseen
  • Changes!

    I remember the manual Royal typewriters that I learned to type on. I remember the rotary phone with party lines. Today I have a Surface Pro, i-Core 7 Desktop and a Lumia 920 phone to do my work with. Thanks for reminding me just how old I really am!
    Foreseen
  • Typewriters?

    And you left out the IBM Selectrics? You're kidding, right?
    RMungo
  • I was taught mechanography at secondary school

    and we had to take our mechanical typewriters every other day for class. I remember my shoulder and arm going numb under the weight of the carrying case (mine was a shoulder strap model). And the "clack clack clack" sound at class. Oh, those were the days... nice days...
    Aristarco Palacios
  • Man-typing

    Never had to use a manual typewriter for work, but it suddenly became expected for CVs and job applications inn the early 80s. I got an old manual m/c and reckon I managed 1 good to 5 duff copies. 10 years later with an IBM 386pc on my desk, I was printing 10+ CVs a week with a personalised application letter and barely any mistakes (yes, I hated my then job!).
    Now get illiterate CVs and unintelligible applications from idiots who think they deserve a job - no excuse now it's so easy!
    BluesMonkey
  • I think your annual 100 pound pay statement is wrong.

    That would not have even been a weekly pay.
    jessepollard
  • Tablets?

    Oh, forget it.
    I suppose I'm a luddite.
    radu.m
  • brings back fond (???) memories...

    In the '60s in the US, the Selectric was rapidly becoming the standard typewriter. (It's a fine machine, if you can get used to the "touch", which was designed for females. The classic IBM "breaking spring" computer keyboard was designed for males, and has almost exactly the opposite feel.)

    Though most offices had switchboards, phones were generally multi-line, with buttons to select the line. You could transfer a call simply by yelling across the room -- "Bob... It's your wife on 4073."

    I learned to type 50 years ago in high school. (Now, that is scary!) We had Olympias, probably the best manual typewriter ever, almost as easy to type on as an electric.

    I don't remember if Michael Nesmith's mother had invented Liquid Paper, but we did have "Corasable" paper, which could be cleanly erased. (IBM and Smith Corona later introduced "lift off" systems.)

    I wouldn't be surprised if the average British pay was around $500 back then. British workers were generally poorly paid, and probably still are. (This is one of the reasons American firms such as Timex moved jobs to Ireland.)
    GrizzledGeezer
  • Typewriters? Uh, I don't think so.

    I remember going into the office with my grandfather and later my father. Typewriters were not on staff's desks, unless they did "writing" as part of their job. Most were done by either personal assistants or secretarial pools. My grandfather was the president of his company and he would dictate his communications to his secretary, she'd type it up and he'd read it and signed it. He never learned to type. But there was a secretarial pool at his office. My father, was a manager and he shared a steno/secretarial pool with others, he also never learned to type and he also dictated his communications. They never had typewriters on their desks.
    ManoaHI
  • Remember

    When we would ask "Do you have email?" now we ask "what is your email?"
    apoteke
  • computer class

    In college, just for fun I took a prgramming course. I learned fortran and punched out my programs onto punch cards. then I ran the program and sometimes used up my computer time because I wrote into my program a continuous loop. We had a computer building not a laptop much less a tablet.
    apoteke
    • I remember

      Remember how you had to fix typos? Card dup and fix the error on the card. Later we had some really "advanced" card punches that had a display, so you could edit before punching the cards.
      ManoaHI