coming out of my shell

coming out of my shell

Friday, January 15, 2016

Ch-ch-changes


I have been thinking about how different office work was when I started my first "real" job, as a secretary, in 1976.

We still used mimeograph machines and/or carbon paper to generate paper copies.  Photocopiers were just being introduced but they were still too expensive for most offices.

I used a massive IBM Selectric II typewriter. Thankfully, I was not in the workforce before electronic typewriters. I was never coordinated enough to type on those old manual cross-bar typewriters with any speed or accuracy, although I did have one at home. 

I worked in an academic office at a university and most of the faculty did not know how to type. That was the norm. Faculty members wrote papers and letters in longhand and brought their notes to secretaries to type. The handwritten text was often a mess, with corrections, arrows moving paragraphs around, additional text written on separate pieces of paper to be inserted elsewhere, coffee stains, etc. In my mid-20's, with few marketable skills and no office experience, I was hired for my first job because I was the only job candidate who could read the professor's handwriting. 

In 1976 I did not mind being called a “secretary.” If someone tried to refer to me back then as an “office professional” I would have laughed, thinking they were trying to patronize me. And the title "administrative assistant" would have sounded like a demotion. Now office workers bristle if you refer to them as a secretary. It is interesting how the job title "secretary" diminished in status over the years.

In the late 1970’s I started doing research fund accounting. All my account ledgers were done in pen and ink. I used red and black pens, and I had my favorite brands. I remember it was a great pleasure putting pen to paper.

I spent my days recording columns of data by hand and then adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing on my electronic calculator, an essential and well-loved machine that took up a good part of my desk. It was big and white and looked like you could jump in and drive it away. 

Cutting and pasting was actually that, except we used tape instead of paste. I imagine there was a time when paste was used, but not in my life time. I cut typed excerpts and pieced them together on a plain white sheet of paper. I took great care to fit and tape the pieces together so they looked like they had been typed to look that way.


If you made a typing mistake you used a covering liquid like "White-Out." That was a little tricky when using carbon paper, but we managed.  If it looked bad you simply started over again. We were touch typists; we were very fast.  Retyping a page did not seem like a big deal.

Before computers we communicated via paper or telephone. If you wanted to tell an individual something you picked up the telephone and called them. There were no answering machines, so you had to keep trying to catch the person at their desk through an elaborate game of telephone tag.

Communicating with large groups was labor intensive. We made copies of a memo to place in each faculty/staff/student mailbox. If you worked in the central administration you made copies, addressed and stuffed a zillion envelopes, and sent them in mass mailings via campus or USPS mail.

In the early 1980's IBM Displaywriters replaced electric typewriters. They were word processors that allowed typists to digitally view
a certain amount of text and correct errors before printing the page. Displaywriters also included a mail merge ability. It is hard to imagine how revolutionary these functions were. I was doing accounting then, so I did not get a Displaywriter. I remember being jealous of the office staff who did. Not to worry! Personal computers and spreadsheet software were just around the corner.

About 1985, personal computers were introduced and everything changed dramatically. Suddenly work became fun. At first not everyone had one on their desk. Instead, you went to the computer room to use a shared computer. There was a sign-up sheet and you signed up for a time slot to use a computer.

Computers did not yet have hard drives storing software or files. You inserted a “systems disk” to start the software from, and you saved your files on a separate floppy disk. I remember becoming confused at first and accidentally erased the software system disk. It was an embarrassing mistake. I quickly learned to pay closer attention.


I distinctly remember when email was introduced soon after computers. Suddenly you could communicate quickly and effectively without wasting time. However, at first you could not count on someone checking their email messages every day. 


I am out of the workforce now, but I wonder what changes the next 40 years will bring?  With future advancements in Artificial Intelligence I wonder if there will even be a need for human office workers in the future?  That is a sobering thought.


IBM Selectric Typewriter






12 comments:

  1. My first computer appeared on my desk as a donation from some development agencies while I was working in a small country in Africa in 1988. The donations were so generous that for a short while this tiny place had the highest number of computers per capita on the planet. Nobody had a clue what we should do with it so we started to design pay rolls and invented staff to fill the spread sheets. Today, I skype with my former colleagues there. They are super smart and on the ball, let me tell you.

    In 2000, I tried to explain to my boss here in Germany, an elderly professor of pediatric endocrinology, how to enter his data into the research data base and when I introduced the mouse to him, he jumped and said, no mice in my lab!

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    1. Ha! He sounds like a jovial old prof.

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  2. My career exactly, save my began more than a decade earlier and I did use manual typewriters. I also began in academia, and quickly moved along to the red and black pens. Every fool knows, debits are black and credits are red!
    My first computer was 1979, delivered to me from the factory floor by the president of the company. It was filthy! I told him to take it away. He said to clean it up, he'd be right back. He came back with what I now realize was a Beta copy of VisiCalc. I swear that instruction manual was the only clear set of spreadsheet instructions I ever read.

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    1. Nice memory. I never used VisiCalc. By the time we got computers Lotus 123 had taken over - that was the systems disk I erased (Lotus 123). I remember going macro crazy and had so much fun trying to automate everything. Wasn't that just yesterday?

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  3. My experiences were similar to yours. I loved and embraced the computer and took courses at our local community college. I tried to stay ahead of the game till my last few years of working. Things were changing very fast, and I no longer was. BTW, the owner, my boss, continued to write out his letters and have me type them till I left. He retired two years later but we still communicate by e-mail today. I had to teach him that so he could stay in business?

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    1. Interesting that he was able to hold and not avoid learning to type to the end!

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  4. I started out in '68 (18 yrs old)for a firm selling wholesale groceries - same as you, mimeograph, select II. Quit after 2 yr. to work as an accounts secretary but was fired after 2 days because they discovered I didn't know what a credit or debit was. I think I got hired for my legs. Went on to be a waitress, (who can't pour coffee?)oh the memories. Moved on to hotel catering coord. Then to catering manager, I once had to oversee a convention for Lama farmers - with 16 live Lama's. Through all of this there was never a computer introduce to me until '83! I was terrified of it and sweat bullets when I had to use it if my secretary was out sick. I never really got the hang of it until...'96 when I was forced to and never became comfortable with it until 2010. You look like a genius compared to me!

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    1. I had no choice - at a certain point all the typewriters disappeared.

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  5. Decades ago it took me 6 months to produce a map by handing cutting and pasting colored paper individually for about 13,000 parcels. Today I can create the same map in about 1 minute.

    But what I find most amazingly is that in the age of typewriters, men could not possibly type. Yet when computers came, that skill miraculously was given to them!

    Unfortunately I think technology is isolating us more and more as people work from home more and there is less and less human interaction. It makes me think of the ending of Wall-E where everyone is gliding along in their recliners, staring at their device screens. Sadly, we are not far from that scenario.

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    1. I have to admit I WAS surprised when male professors started using the computer keyboard. Almost funny, in retrospect.

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  6. I took four years of typing in junior high and high school before the advent of computers. Best courses I good have taken in high school as it made me a touch typist. I remember learning on a manual and found it so hard to push "a" with my pinky finger. And making copies, having to erase the mistakes on every single copy!

    When computers came along it was great.

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So, whadayathink?