Office equipment through the decades: the 1960s
In this first of a series of blog posts about office equipment through the decades, we take a look at the typical office of the 1960s, and the office equipment that was used.
To many people, the sixties were marked by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; minis and miniskirts; music festivals and the hippy movement; and clashes between mods and rockers.
England celebrated its football World Cup win; JFK was assassinated; the space race ended with the moon landing; and television sets were becoming commonplace in homes up and down the country.
But aside from the popular culture and the political events of the day, what was it like for the average UK office worker? What was the working week like?
Despite a new-found level of prosperity and affluence, it was still a time before employment law was firmly established. Office workers had few rights and little protection. Employees had to accept their conditions and they worked hard to make themselves indispensable in order to avoid being summarily sacked.
The stereotypical image of the manager in his large office, with a secretary sat outside seems clichéd to us today, but that was how it was. Maybe the depiction seen in US television series, Mad Men, isn’t entirely characteristic of the typical UK office. Certainly in researching this blog post, we found little evidence of workers enjoying mid-morning scotch-swilling sessions! But the show does accurately reflect the accepted norms of people smoking in the office and women being employed in the more subservient roles.
So, stereotypes aside, was it really the era of the typing pool and computers as big as rooms?
Typewriters and dictation
Memos and letters were dictated to secretaries who took notes in shorthand and then typed them up using manual typewriters. Larger companies had typing pools with dozens of typists, who were not necessarily assigned to individual managers or departments.
In the early 60s, office dictation machines existed, which recorded the user’s voice onto wax-coated cylinders. After transcription, the wax then had to be scraped off before the machine could be re-used. Dictation onto magnetic tape became possible later on, with reel-to-reel tapes and compact cassettes.
In larger companies, it was common to have a central, manual switchboard, run by a team of telephone operators. All calls out of the company would be placed by the operators, who would run the switchboard using its many flaps, levers and switches.
Non-local calls had to be placed through GPO (General Post Office) operators, and were sometimes subject to a delay of several hours while waiting for a line to become free!
When copies of documents were required, this was usually decided beforehand so that additional copies could be made at the typing stage, using carbon copy paper. Alternatively, if a copy of an already existing document was needed, a copy typist would re-type it.
Copying machines had been invented at the end of the 1940s, by a company that later became Xerox, and by the 1960s they were making their way into use in the workplace. Employing light-or heat-sensitive paper, the process involved passing the original through the machine with a piece of special paper and then putting that paper through again with the blank page being copied onto.
In 1962 there were about 10,000 computers in the whole world. And they cost hundreds of thousands of pounds each. Banks and very large companies used mainframes, which took up whole rooms and were connected to remote terminals by telephone lines and modems. The computer terminals had video screens but teletype machines were needed to input and output the data.
Mini computers also emerged in the work place, but they really weren’t that mini and were often as large as pianos!
Programmes and the data used by them were input into computers using punch cards. Workers would use specialist punch machines that cut tiny rectangular holes into DL sized pieces of card, according to which keys had been pressed. Hundreds or thousands of these cards would then be stacked up and loaded into the computer so that they could be processed.
The ARPANET – the forerunner of the internet – made its first data connection at the very end of the decade, in 1969. But it wouldn’t be for another 25 years that the internet became widespread in the office environment.
How would you cope without today’s technology if you were suddenly transported back to a 1960s office? Or, if you worked in an office in the 60s, what are you memories? How was it different to today? We’d love to hear from you. Tweet us your views @MargolisUK.
Other posts in this series: