I looked expectantly at the middle aged woman sitting across the desk from me. I could feel my pulse thumping in my wrist, and my mouth was dry with anticipation. Would she, or wouldn’t she?
She smiled, breaking the tension. “Yes, I think we’ll go ahead with your electronic typewriter. We’ll start off with one machine, which I will place with the typing pool supervisor, and if she likes it, we will order a further twenty machines”.
I swallowed hard. I was thinking of the commission. My old maths master would have been proud, as during his classes of modern maths, I would stare hopelessly out of the window, whilst wrestling with the problems of tessellations, matrices and other modern maths nonsense.
However, I had become quite adept at knocking percentage discounts off, and then working out my commission to a reasonable level of accuracy. In this case, I estimated that even after the discount I would have to give to land such a sizeable order I would scoop about three and a half grand.
Back then the average wage was about £6000 per year, so a cool six months’ salary.
A few weeks later, I got the go ahead, and delivered twenty further machines into the offices of a medium sized factory. More precisely into the typing pool.
How times have changed.
In order to keep the orders rolling in, that factory needed 21 college-trained typists, whose sole job was to type out letters, quotes, orders, specifications and manuals. The noise generated by 21 typewriters was phenomenal, and the output continued without remission from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon. A whole room in the bowels of the building.
Office clerks would walk down to the typing pool with memos, and other draft copy and would place these into a basket where the supervisor would allocate the work out to the typists.
A junior manager would normally share a personal assistant with two or three others managers, and this individual would usually be trained to take dictation in shorthand, which nowadays is a virtually dead art.
Generating correspondence was a labour-intensive task back then!
Other subtle and sinister advances in office technology, such as dictation equipment removed the need for a secretary skilled in Shorthand. Managers were now evolving to sit alone in their office, dictating their letters and memos into an electronic recorder, using magnetic tape, normally contained in a small cassette.
The skilled secretary could now be replaced by an audio typist, who would transcribe the audio tape, whilst wearing a headphone and using a foot control to start and stop the recording.
Brave new world.
Further “evolution” has meant that current managers and executives, even those at the highest levels of seniority generate their own correspondence.
Modern offices are relatively quiet, except for the muted clatter of fingers pecking away at keyboards.
Egalitarian too, with male employees openly accepting a task that thirty years ago would be seen as “woman’s work”.
Gone, then are the days of fingers blackened with carbon paper, the thwack of typewriter hammers thumping text onto a page, and a whole room filled with young women; the admin clerk who opened the incoming mail, the intimacy of sitting in the office with a trusted secretary, dictating mail, safe in the knowledge that despite the ramblings, the completed work would be correctly spelled, accurately punctuated, and grammatically perfect. The signed document would be whisked away to the post room, leaving only the smell of delicate perfume.
Forgotten, then, the adolescent thrill of sitting in the office, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the ladies of the typing pool – a fashion catwalk, and the start of many teenage fantasies, and in some cases dates. The smell of hot electronics mixed with a faint aroma of methylated spirits, completed letters left on the desk in a folder for signature.
Replaced by what? Efficiency. Sterile, drab and devoid of human interaction. Individual managers, efficiently bunkered in their electronic silos, creating and typing their own correspondence, often by email – signatures inserted digitally – even the humble ballpoint pen being slowly replaced by biometric data.
Auto correct and spellcheckers unerringly ensure that documents are almost perfect, and it may be days before anyone receives a hard copy document.
Thirty years ago, I would have either drafted this article in pen, or dictated it.
However, I have created it all. Consulted nobody. Flirted with no one.
I may be old fashioned, but I kind of miss those days.
Welcome to brave new world.
Mark Charlwood 2018©️