Monday, 28 September 2009

Office apocalypse

My late m-in-law had one very like this, though I think hers was the first electric typewriter, from back in 1930s Manchester. . .

When going through the junk room yesterday, I found some carbon paper that mum had used when she used to run a club book (for herself and a neighbour). That took me back to the days when I first worked in an office, and we had to make umpteen carbon copies of letters or invoices. By the time you got to layer 8, the copy you kept and filed, it was very fuzzy and barely legible. Especially with my awful typing mistakes - I was not a natural typist in those days. Even 40 words a minute were a challenge (the last test I took, on the new-fangled electronic typewriter, I was 96 wpm and accurate). With today's wonderfully light computer keyboards, I am faster still.

I learned to type in my final year of school - by dropping two CSE subjects - mine were history and geography - a group of us were sent to Mount Pleasant Secretarial School, where we took typing (bad enough) and Office Practice (just how interesting can you make "How to complete a cheque" ?) I can remember being asked to write a piece of homework on what sort of office I should like to work in - one for a huge company or a small one. How the hell would I know?! We learned to type crashing along to the sound of the William Tell Overture, dah dah dah, dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah DAH, carriage return! I was given to looking at the keyboard to see where my fingers should be, and because of this I got given the typewriter with the blank keys. I cursed our teacher at the time but can now touch type at 100+ wpm so it stood me in good stead. We learned about templates, and columns, and stencils, and I hated every minute of it.

In my first job as an office junior/invoice clerk, the company obviously fancied themselves as modern and go-ahead and bought one of the earliest "computers" (I think it was called the Remington "miniputer" - an oxymoron if ever there was one) which would work out the invoice total. The thing was the size of a large desk, with the business side having a keyboard and the other clear side showing a bank of large relay boards, one or another of which was always going wrong, and poor Bill, the engineer, was with us every week.

Then there was the wonderful job of changing the ribbons on the typewriter . . . deep joy. Working in accounts, we had the red and black variety . . .

We also had a little adding machine which I loved using. You tapped in the figures you wanted to add up and then pulled a handle . . . The illustration below is of a "modern" handle-less adding machine!

No longer is there a telex machine which rattled like a hail of bullets when you sent the telex. Shades of Router and war reporters and all that, but in my case back then, just accountancy talk. Then there was the Gesterner stencil, how I hated that thing. Having to run off inky copies after having to set everything up so accurately. I bet they all breathed a sigh of relief in the office when THAT was retired (I was long gone by then).

At home I had a little portable typewriter which I used pre-computer. I used to type lots of penpal letters on mine, plus my creative writing pieces, instructor's notes for Pony Club Camp and Rallies. Happy memories. It now leans against the wall by the dustbin, in its pale blue case, waiting to be taken to be recycled . . .

Then there was the daisy wheel electric typewriter, complete with use-once carbon plastic ribbon which was on a sort of all-in-one cassette, which you just pushed into place, and didn't get your hands dirty!

Just as I was leaving, they were bringing in electronic typewriters with a short-term (half a page) memory, and you could correct your errors before printing work off. Yup - this illustration looks just like the one I used to use . . .

No longer is there any Tippex for covering up your (in my case MANY) typing mistakes. Oh gosh, memories of the wretched stuff clogging up and so you would have a big chewing-gum sized lump of it on the paper, or your carbons would stick together. The little chalky papers you put over the letter were a much better idea.

How things have changed, and how rapidly. Ten years ago, when I got my first computer, I never dreamed I would be communicating instantly with people around the world, making wonderful friends through my blog and through forums, let alone reading the newspapers on line, typing in a single word of phrase and searching for it - it is even quicker to check a word in an on-line dictionary that to walk across the room and look it up in my printed version, looking up maps, recipes, searching Creative Commons for illustrations (many thanks for todays job-lot), shopping on line, selling on line.

Gosh, are we ever going to feel bereft if the whole lot goes to the wall post-peak-oil . . . There probably will be no snail mail by then as Royal Mail will have long been out of business. . .


  1. An interesting post. I've never become an efficient typist. I took a course called "personal typing" in my last year of high school--I think my top speed was 50-something words per minute, and it hasn't gotten better.
    As children my sister and I were fascinated by a neighbor's typewriter. I don't recall the brand, but it was a wiry little machine that perched on his desk. He had been a shipping clerk prior to his marriage, and now did the farm accounts and belonged to various town and farm organizations that required letters reports. We thought it a treat to have paper rolled into the machine and be allowed to peck away. Something tells me that the keyboard was not the standard arrangement of keys which we see today. My parents bought us a Royal portable that last year of high school. I remember how it bounced about on the table as I labored into the night pounding out a term paper or essay for school. I could have produced it in half the time in lovely flowing cursive.

  2. I love typing, even while in high school typing class. Yes, I'm strange but that first pictured typewriter is a beautiful peice of art! I bet the typists using it at the time didn't think so :) A great post, one all bloggers can certainly relate to in some way!

  3. Brilliant post.
    Although I never learnt to type and can just about type with two fingers and eyes glued to the key board .... your post reminded me of all the changes in the machines over my life time ..I remember everyone raving about golf balls and daisy wheels ...are typewriters still used ????
    Computer games are something I cannot get over the advancement in... I remember when it was so exciting to bat a dot over a line !!!!
    I think I am beginning to understand the wonder, MIL had, of Flight. She used to say that she was alive when the first aeorplane flew and then less than 60 years later she had watched men walking on the moon.
    Sorry ...I rambled a bit.