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A review of office and travel technology and policy progress 1970 - present

Week of 1 Oct 07

Sometimes it is good to stop and think what has been wrought over the years. I started working in a formal work setting (I am ignoring the back-breaking farm years) in 1970. There have been a few changes since then that perhaps the younger generations may have difficulty grasping…

When I started working in an office, we used sliderules or just a pad and pencil. Typewriters were in use, and to make copies the stenographers used carbon paper and “flimsies” –thin paper used for making copies. They used an eraser wheel to make corrections and accurate typing skills were very important as they were often typing four or five copies at a time. There was no copier in our entire company until 1971 and then it had a slot in which you fed one sheet at a time and it made one copy at a time (you could not copy books unless you tore the pages out of them and fed each one into the slot in the machine). Rapid messages were sent by cable or telegraph. In order to make a long distance call, you called the PBX (Private Branch Exchange) operator (she was affectionately known as the “switch b--”); she made the call and then hooked you to it by calling you back. All telephone equipment, even in your building, was owned by Bell. It was illegal to make a permanent link to telephone hardware, not that you had anything to link to it.

By state law, females were required to take a fifteen minute paid break every two hours for rest and rejuvenation, so plan your typing and long distance calls carefully.

I was the only one in the office that did not smoke voluntarily. Everything in the office had a thin film of cigarette tar all over it.

Drawings were done in pencil on the latest and greatest thing: Mylar. I preferred vellum myself, for I thought it took pencil better, but for drawings that were going to be used repetitively, one was required to use Mylar. For other repetitive things, such as bills of material, you had Mylar adhesive stencils that were ordered from a company in Port Washington, New York. I can’t remember the company’s name.

In 1973, my boss bought a Texas Instruments calculator that could add, subtract, multiply and divide. It sold for around $159 at the time (my gross weekly pay was $225). He had been the superintendent in the shop, but when he kicked an employee that was on the floor on all fours, the union complained, so they made him chief engineer, and thus our boss in engineering. I remember standing in the lobby one day when a female welder came in looking for a job (we were hiring at the time). The receptionist told her she should not be interested in that—it was hot and dirty work in our shop. So, the woman left. About the same time, OSHA showed up for the first time—and stayed a week. There were pages and pages of things they wanted changed in our office and shop.

In 1974, I was introduced to time-sharing. A computer at McDonnell-Douglas in Saint Louis, Missouri held some programs we used. You called a telephone line from the office and hooked to it with an acoustic coupler (you still could not hard-wire to telephone equipment). Your data had to be put in each time you ran a routine; there was no way to save your data. I also saw my first memory typewriter that year. We used it to write training manuals. When we traveled, we went to the in-house travel office where all our reservations were made and which also gave us a cash advance, in cash, of course, for our trip. Credit cards were still a novelty. An armored truck visited this office daily to handle the cash needs. When you went to a manufacturing site from central engineering, as an engineer you were expected to wear a suit, no matter what the circumstances.

If you made telephone calls coast-to-coast at this time, you had to learn how to “talk” on the phone. The signals were being bounced off satellites for the first time and there was a delay and echo in the signal. You had to make sure you did not talk on top of the other person or you could get into a reverberation loop that would not end.

In 1977, around Christmas, I bought my first calculator. The price of calculators had gotten low enough and my income had risen high enough that I felt I could personally afford one. Somewhere along in here, FedEx came into being. Before that you used UPS (which was only on the ground) or the package service of the Greyhound Bus Company (more likely, for they were ubiquitous) to move packages of drawings and so forth “rapidly” across the country.

In late 1979, I bought an Apple II+ computer for my business. They were available with 16, 32 or 48K of RAM. I decided to go with 48K and one 5.25” floppy disk drive. They were not available with a hard disk. For a monitor, we used an old Black and White TV as Apple’s monitors were way too expensive. We did not have a printer, they were at least $2,500 (in 1979 $) so we made up work sheets that you filled in by hand when you solved problems. I wrote all the programs that we used in “Basic” (there were no canned software programs until the next year when VisiCalc came out). Long distance was running about 15 cents a minute.

In 1980, I saw my first cable television in a hotel room at the Admiral Benbow Inn on the banks of the Red River in Bossier City, Louisiana. I watched CNN in fascination (in the town where I lived we could receive two television channels and they were talking about awarding a cable franchise). Somewhere along about this time, security screening came into use at major airports, but not at small airports. Before this, you just walked out to the gate and got on the plane.

The IBM PC came out in late 1981. We bought one for our entire engineering department in the mill in which I was working. With printer and all, it was about $8,000 (1981 $). The next year, word processing software became available in a program called “WordStar.” It took about all your fingers to hold down enough keys to create an indented paragraph. There were no mice and no Windows-style software programs. We still did not have anything like AutoCAD—that was for big applications.

About this time on the mainframe in the mill, they developed a database of spare parts and cross-referenced it to paper drawings in our engineering office. We had all our drawings microfilmed and put readers and microfilm files at strategic locations throughout the mill. This was a great savings—before this, if maintenance needed a drawing in the middle of the night, they broke into the drawing room and took the original to the site of the problem, because they had neither the training nor inclination to start up the blueprint machine and wait fifteen minutes for it to warm up. We often lost originals in this way.

Around 1985, cell phones came into use, but they were called car phones because they were permanently installed in cars since they were so large. I did not get one until about 1990, and because of per minute charges and roaming rates, my bill routinely ran $1,500 per month (1990$).

I saw a fax machine for the first time in 1985.

In 1987, I bought a nationwide pager. It was called a “Mobira,” which was a brand name of an as yet unheard of company on the retail level: Nokia of Finland. It worked off the SSB (Single Side Band) system of local FM radio stations. Speaking of which, FM radio became a noticeable player on the popular music scene back around 1970 or 1971—before that, popular music was all on AM. Today, I only listen to XM.

When I expanded the office for a major engineering company in 1988, I decreed “no drawing boards.” We ended up with a couple, just to have a place to roll out paper drawings we were still receiving from others. We spent several million dollars wiring an office for about 100 engineers with workstations, personal computers and so forth. I had a staff of three technicians just to keep the whole thing running—one who worked a late shift to back up everything each night. In 1989 we started buying color monitors and mice started showing up on the desks of those other than the ones using drawing software. Around this time, we obtained a telephonic link to our home office on another continent so that we could transport data some way other than facsimile. This was the first office I was in that had voice mail, which was a hot new thing about 1988.

In 1989, I saw CNN in a hotel room in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The World Wide Web and ubiquitous email came along in 1995. I was an early adopter and have had up and running since then.

In 1999, I saw CNN and watched an Atlanta Braves baseball game in a hotel room in Bogotá, Colombia.

In 2001, I bought a digital camera so that I could electronically send pictures.

Today, I must be on my 14th or 15th cell phone. The biggest problem with them these days is they are so small you can lose them (I dropped one down a well, sat on another one in a creek—it was in my back pocket). The computer power in my primary office is a two year old Dell, driving two 22” wide aspect ratio monitors plus about a seven year old Dell Driving one 19” square monitor. All of this is hooked to a Tektronix high speed color printer (which cost me nothing--see And, then this whole thing is hooked to a network in our home that ties together three more desktops and two laptops in a hardwired and wireless configuration. There are two fax/scanner/printer all-in-ones on the system, too. On the opposite wall in my office is a flat screen television that is on CNBC all day (on mute).

In 2004, I bought a GPS for my car, which allows me to take the most direct or the fastest route to appointments without thinking about it. Sometimes, the best route is not intuitively obvious when just thinking about it.

As you know, you can buy or often obtain free software for just about anything. For instance, I find Mozilla Thunderbird to be the best email program I have ever used and it costs nothing. My critical files are backed up every night automatically by Enveloc for about $50 per month. They store them in three undisclosed location computer farms scattered around the United States. With a Skype telephone and a video camera, I can call home computer-to-computer at no cost and with video.

On the road, if I have forgotten anything, I tap back into the office system with I can do this from nearly anywhere with my broadband wireless card.

Today, I do all my own word processing, calculating, book publishing, travel reservations and shipping right from my desk. For the volume of work today, I think it would probably take one to two administrative assistants to equal the productivity if we had to use the technology of 1970. I would also need another room for the rest and rejuvenation breaks if I hired female administrative assistants under the rules of those days. Moore’s Law (the posit re halving of computer memory costs every 18 months) is certainly alive and well.

All this technology, of course, can lead to carpal tunnel, blurred vision and other modern maladies. I also think the lifestyle of the office worker has become even more sedentary as one does not any longer even have to get out of a chair to retrieve files. These are all safety and health issues of which we should be aware.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


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