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June 2024
4min read

Landmarks in the History of Your Office

1837: The Telegraph Samuel Morse’s telegraph separated communication and transportation. Information became electrical, with the Morse Code the first form of software. During the Civil War, the telegraph and the railroad came into their own as the twin, dominant modes of modern commerce, requiring new forms of office organization.

1873: The Typewriter Glidden&Sholes’s first practical model was manufactured by Remington, the gun maker. It went on the market in 1873, at a price of $125, but not until more than a decade later did a manufacturer offer a typewriter whose typed line was visible to the user, or one with lowercase as well as capital letters. Touch-typing came on the scene in the 1880s—and with it the standardized QWERTY keyboard.

1876: The Telephone The Philadelphia Exhibition of 1876 showed the world the telephone, but the world was slow to catch on. As late as 1888 there were only 195,000 installed. Alexander Graham Bell’s first concept for his creation had been as a device to deliver concerts and speeches to passive audiences. It was Theodore Vail, the power behind the rise of AT&T, who grasped the telephone’s essential nature. He understood that the technology relied on a network whose value would increase exponentially as it grew. From 1896 to 1899 the number of phones doubled, and from 1896 to 1906 it multiplied by 10.

By 1920 there were 10 million phones—one or every American office desk.

1888: Dictation Equipment Thomas Edison thought of his phonograph as a tool for office dictation, not foreseeing its use for recording music. Alexander Graham Bell, that other leading inventor of the age, was the force behind Dictaphone, the company and trademark most associated with dictation. It had its roots in 1881, when Bell and his associates developed an improved version of Edison’s early phonograph. By 1888 Edison had put the first commercial machine in production, and the wax cylinder, astonishingly, remained in use until 1947, when it was finally supplanted by recording belts like those used by Fred MacMurray in the film Double Indemnity.

1890: The Punch Card When Herman Hollerith built a tabulating machine that used punch cards to record and sort the 1890 census information, he cut the time required from years to months and in the process saved the Census Bureau $5 million in staff costs. Soon railroads and department stores began adopting the cards, and modern data processing was born.

1915: The Modern Desk The still-familiar steel desk with drawers did away with the pigeonholes of highstanding wooden predecessors like the Wooton Patent Cabinet Office Secretary, popular in the 1880s. Introduced by Steelcase, the new desks were laid out on open floors like those of factories, and their flat, unobscured surfaces left work and workers visible—and more amenable to Taylorite efficiency measures.

1960: The Xerox Model 914 Copier The technology of office-photocopying took years to reach maturity before this breakthrough model appeared. And just as Western Union had dismissed the importance of the telephone, IBM had turned down the photocopier when it was originally developed by Chester Carlson, a classic solo inventor who carried out his first experiments in an apartment above a Queens, New York, beauty parlor, in the 1930s.

1964: The Action Office The designer Robert Propst combined desk, storage unit, and wall into one piece, in an effort to provide a measure of privacy with an inexpensive, standardized product. The innovation lay in making the wall serve as a storage module and desk support. The format degenerated into the slap-up cubicle.

1967: The Office Landscape Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle, a team of German brothers, developed a concept of office planning based on patterns of communication rather than hierarchy. The result was an end to martial rows of identical desks in favor of oasis-like clusters of desks and file walls. Introduced at DuPont, the “Quickborner” system of office landscape came to be widely imitated.

1981: The IBM PC The personal computer, developed by hobbyists in the mid-1970s, was legitimized for business by the introduction of IBM’s personal computer, in 1981. It was ushered in with a memorable ad campaign based on images from Modern Times , Charlie Chaplin’s landmark 1936 film in which he attacked the inhumanity of modern manufacturing work. The Tramp’s IBM PC apparently enabled him to do without a desk at all, and the advertisements showed him free to roam about, his computer sitting atop a Saarinen-style “tulip” side table of the sort one would have found in the reception area, and not the working offices, of a 1960s Fortune 500 company. Beside the computer on the table was a single rose in a vase—a distant but distinct echo of 1960s “flower power.”

1984: The Apple The Macintosh brought the graphic interface and the computer mouse to the office, and, married to the laser printer, it gave birth to desktop publishing. But the paperless office that such computers were also supposed to herald soon proved an illusion. The new technology let people create and discard multiple drafts, prepare more records, and accumulate more paper than ever before.

1986: The Fax Machine Expensive early machines were in use by 1966, but the key moment came in the summer of 1986, when facsimile transmission became cheaper than international telex. The number of fax machines nearly doubled in the next two years. Fax , a new noun, soon became a verb as well.

1980s: The Laptop It began with costly efforts such as the Grid Compass of 1982, which cost $800 then and now can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The laptop quickly became more widely available later in the decade, when prices fell. Now salesmen could scan spreadsheets —or play Space Invaders—during long airplane flights.

1989: Dilbert The comic strip takes as its setting the cube farms that descended from the Action Office of the 1960s, and it devotes itself to celebrating oddities of the contemporary workplace, from the deluded boss spewing New Economy clichés to prairie-dogging, when cubicle residents pop up their heads at the latest rumor of layoffs.

1990s: The Virtual Office During the 1990s, the ascendancy of just-in-time production inspired a vogue for just-in-time office work. Employees could usefully work at home by telecommuting—25 million were doing so by 1993, twice as many as a decade before—or drop in at the office when needed for a specific project. The scheme was aimed both at occasional workers and ones who put in long hours in new high-tech industries. The best-known experiment in the virtual office was conducted by the advertising agency Chiat Day, in a Venice, California, building designed by the architect Frank Gehry. Workers there could seek inspiration in spaces variously called the “student union,” the “club room,” the “romper room,” and the “conference womb.” A set of Tilt-A-Whirl conference spaces was created in cars acquired from old amusement-park rides.

1994: The Aeron Chair Herman Miller’s office chair became ubiquitous in Silicon Valley and a symbol of the world. Its ergonomie design included a mesh seat that summed up the informality of the “new economy” culture: No leather or designer-chosen upholstery fabric here, but rather something newer and better, yet less pretentious.

—P. P.

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