The Evolution Of Your Office

PrintPrintEmailEmailOne of the first objects visible inside the entrance of the National Building Museum’s show On the Job: Design and the American Office (which runs in Washington, D.C., through August) is an early stapler. The Hotchkiss Number Two is more than a century old. It uses a curved, gravity-flow system for feeding the staples, lending it a resemblance to a cross between Hans Brinker’s silver skate and an old-time apple corer. But it is still recognizable as the ancestor of my sleek and trusty Swingline model 711—like a Winton touring car beside a Ford Taurus.

 

The stapler is a reminder not only of how we take for granted even the most mundane office technologies but also of how deep run the roots of many of the devices that sit on our desks, even in this high-tech age. Looking at the Hotchkiss, I wondered how we got from that stapler to Staples and the other superstores where the entrepreneur can in half an hour find everything required to outfit a small business.

The answer is: standards. “For all standard staples,” it says inside my trusty Swingline, whose chamber holds slabs of staples that also fit Bostich and Acco machines. Such devices as the stapler, the typewriter, the adding machine, the punch card, and of course the personal computer were all possible because of basic common agreements on the sizes and shapes of office products. Offering interchangeability while not penalizing innovation, standards great and small are an overlooked secret of the success of the American office. They turned supplies into staples.

America was built on other standards too: the two-by-four that gave us the balloon-frame house, instant cities such as Chicago, and suburbia; the cartridge that, interchangeable between the Colt .45 revolver and the Winchester rifle, “won the West.”

“Industry standard” is a catch phrase of the computer culture, but industry has been creating standards since the invention of interchangeable parts for guns. The stapler arrived as part of a small army of devices whose creation was fostered by the end of the Civil War. The Remington Firearms company, with weapons contracts in decline, turned to producing standardized small metal parts for the typewriter—and later for the stapler.

With the mechanical calculator, the address machine, the check writer, and other office machines joining the typewriter, the planners and executives of a century ago aspired to achieve for office work the results Frederick Taylor was bringing to manufacturing. The arrival of machines in the office mandated standards. Standardization of parts—“the American system of manufacture”—made those machines possible. And from these critical inaugural standards, other ones radiated and rippled through the design of the office.

The motto of the standard might be: The best is the enemy of the good. It is better to have one workable system for everyone than several excellent conflicting systems. Consider the impact of the typewriter alone—and of the standard typewriter keyboard, with its infamous QWERTY arrangement (the name comes from the first six letters of the upper row). Devised to separate keys that jammed easily on early machines, it is far from ideal.

The Sholes and Glidden machine of 1874 was the first practical model for office use, but the typewriter could not achieve acceptance until its keyboard was standardized.

The QWERTY layout is a still much-debated case of acceptable, widely adopted technology triumphing over superior technology. The Microsoft trial focused attention on similar standards and technological “lock in.” VHS versus Betamax, Windows versus Macintosh—the fault lines are familiar from our own day.

Once “locked in,” standards have curious effects. No less shrewd an observer than the French architect Le Corbusier remarked how the typewriter had helped bring the adoption of 8.5 by 11 inches as the standard American business-letter size. Without the typewriter, we might have a neater number—8 by 12, say. The stationery industry standardized its sizes by the 1920s, and without any of us having a vote. Lawyers got their own size pads and files to fit older courthouse systems.

 

That in turn led to standard dimensions for file folders to hold documents and file cases to hold file folders. Desk drawers took on consistent dimensions as the desk became standardized. Modern clean-surfaced, drawered desks replaced the more private hutchlike environments of the nineteenth century, where papers had been rolled into scrolls, bound in the red tape that became the classic symbol for bureaucratic sloth, and stored in pigeonholes.

Then there is the case of’carbon paper. Around 1806 Ralph Wedgwood, of London, produced a “writing press” using paper imbued with printer’s ink. His system was taken up by Thomas Jefferson, that inveterate tinkerer with home-office equipment, and other leading political and business figures of the time. By 1823 Cyrus P. Dakin, of Concord, Massachusetts, was making similar carbon paper, and it was quickly adopted by newspaper reporters.