History of Office Machinery

2 minute read

We all know that offices can be noisy places. From phones ringing to copiers copying, the 21st-century office is alive with the sound of machinery. It's hard to believe that this is a relatively new development. Although the office as an entity has been around for millennia, machines that make office work easier and more efficient have only become popular in the past few centuries.

Office administration first began in the time of the pharaohs, when small rooms were set aside in temples for the clerks to keep records and accounts. In the centuries that followed, the business of business management changed drastically. Thanks in large part to the Industrial Revolution, and in lesser part to the development of the railroad system, no longer was one person in charge of creating a product from beginning to end in a single location. Instead, work became specialized, with workers performing one aspect of a job, exclusively and repetitively, within a system of offices.

As the workplace grew, output increased and functions became more complex. Accordingly, the tools needed to do the job and maintain order also evolved. Soon, mechanisms that withstood constant use, improved efficiency and eased worker fatigue were in high demand. What's more, methods of record-keeping and communication had to be standardized. Two inventions that met all of these requirements were the calculator and the typewriter.

Bookkeeper's Nemesis

The Thacher Slide Rule is capable of calculating multiplication, division, squares and square roots as accurate as 4 to 5 decimal places

The Thacher Slide Rule is capable of calculating multiplication, division, squares and square roots as accurate as 4 to 5 decimal places

German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz once said "It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labour of calculation which could safely be relegated to anyone else if machines were used." At the end of the 19th century, labor-saving devices were the wave of the future. In fact, office equipment was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, including an early telephone, telegraphs, copying presses, a calculator, a typewriter, and even a water cooler.

Calculators have actually been around since the early 17th century. From French mathematician Blaise first adding machine in 1642 to Charles Babbage's enigmatic Difference Engine, designed in 1822, many searched for a faster way to crunch numbers in less time. Several different types of calculators were developed, and depending on their functions, were more appropriate for certain disciplines than others. For example, a calculator that performed well for scientific or engineering work was less ideal for banking or accounting.

A further development was the adding machine. Perhaps more important to business, adding machines printed out paper records of entries and totals on tape, while a calculating machine did not. This difference often affected a machine's success or failure with a particular field.

No matter how advanced and revolutionary these early calculators were, they met with a great deal of resistance. Two companies, the Felt & Tarrant Manufacturing Co., and the American Arithmometer Co. (later the Burroughs Adding Machine Co.), introduced both adding and calculating machines that were only successful after years on the market. Both companies were founded in the mid-1880s, but neither was able to find a significant market for their machines before the turn of the century. This is mainly because many bookkeepers and accountants initially believed these new machines would replace them. And indeed, the advent of these machines revolutionized the pace of office work. Because of these machines, businesses could train and employ its workers on the machines at a lower cost than it would have to pay a few men doing the work with pen, ink and brainpower alone. (Reference:

A Speedy Development

typewriterThough many of us today may prefer the gentle sound of quill pens scratching against parchment, it is the sound of typewriters that was most closely identified with a busy office for decades. Dozens of patents were filed for various forms of typewriters between 1829 and 1870. One of these was the writing ball, a dome of keys perched above a writing surface. It was a big hit in Europe, but never quite caught on in the U.S.

The problem with many early machines was that they printed very slowly. The first typewriter that allowed its operator to produce a document at a faster speed than writing was introduced by E. Remington and Sons, the famed firearms manufacturer. Engineered by the company's sewing machine division, this model was called the Sholes & Glidden, after Christopher Lantham Sholes and his assistant Carlos Glidden, who received patents in 1867 for a prototype that, according to contemporary accounts, "looked something like a cross between a small piano and kitchen table." This model was also the first to introduce the QWERTY keyboard. Though not quite successful, it paved the way for typewriters to be accepted and used in the workplace, and thus forever transformed the creating of print media.

It wasn't until the mid 1880s that typewriters became common in offices, but business was soon booming. Though expensive, typewriters produced documents quicker and more legibly than handwriting. Soon, hundreds of thousands of machines were being sold by companies like Hammond, Smith Premier and Imperial. In following years, machines were made using fewer parts, which also improved speed. Some very intriguing models of early typewriters can be found at M.S. Rau Antiques, including an Imperial Model B, with its rare curved QWERTY keyboard, and the Hammond No. 12, the first front strike typewriter, which allowed the user to see what was being typed as it was typed.

Antique office machines give us a glimpse into the early days of office life. Works of mechanical beauty, they link us to a vastly different, yet oddly familiar past.




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