Office equipment through the decades: the 1970s
This is our second in a series of blog posts about office equipment through the decades. This time we explore a typical office of the 1970s, and the office equipment that was used.
What do the seventies mean to you? Perhaps they evoke glam rock, disco and ABBA, with flares, platform heels and sideburns? Or maybe you think of the later seventies and conjure up visions of punk, safety pins, Mohican haircuts and Doc Martens?
In the 70s, the Vietnam War finally came to a close, but the Cold War continued. The US President resigned because of a scandal; the King of Rock died on his toilet; and the UK saw its first female Prime Minister.
In the UK – against a backdrop of recession, the Three-Day Week and the Winter of Discontent – people cheered themselves up at the cinema, watching Star Wars and Jaws, and at home with TV shows like Z-Cars, The Good Life and Fawlty Towers.
So if that was the culture and politics of the era, what was office life like?
Office décor consisted largely of brown, gold and beige – with some splashes and highlights of green and orange in the more go-ahead company! The boss had his own office and workers’ desks were lined up outside in rows – this was before the time of cubicle workstations. The desks sported in-trays and ashtrays; rolodex, intercoms and dial telephones.
As for the office equipment that the typical 70s worker had to contend with … read on.
Typewriters and dictation
Typewriters were still the norm in the 1970s office. The IBM Selectric “golf ball” model was used in many offices. These utilised carbon paper, with copies being made on coloured paper. If a typist made a mistake, typewriter correction tape or fluid was used.
Memory typewriters were introduced in larger companies in the later part of the decade. These could hold a few lines of text, or a whole letter, which could be checked for accuracy before it was typed onto paper.
For dictation, either a secretary would take shorthand notes, or new, cassette-tape dictation machines would be used.
Although the first ever mobile phone call was made in the 1970s – in 1973 – it wouldn’t be for another ten years or so that there was even a network to support mobile calls.
Instead, fixed phones with corded handsets and painfully slow rotary dialling were mainstream.
Photocopiers using light- or heat-sensitive paper were still in use in the 70s. While companies maybe only a few copier machines at the beginning of the decade, come the mid-70s, larger companies had many machines deployed throughout a building.
Stencil duplicators, known as Roneo machines, were also widespread. If you were around in the 70s, you’ll probably recall the radio advertisement jingle that promoted them: “Right around the office … Roneo!”
Smaller companies, as well as schools and churches, often used spirit duplicators, or Banda machines. Perhaps you won’t remember that name, but if you ever came across one, you’d definitely remember the distinctive smell and the purple text!
Canon introduced the first electrostatic colour copier in 1973, but again, it wasn’t for another 15 years that colour laser copiers became commercially available.
Calculations in the 1970s were done manually and if necessary, checked on a comptometer, which was a large, mechanical heavy desktop adding machine with a handle. However, these became a thing of the past when electronic pocket calculators were introduced. Sinclair’s slimline “Executive” calculator, introduced in 1972, was popular, but in comparison with today, was expensive. It was launched at a cost of £79.95 plus VAT, which was about two or three weeks’ wages at that time!
Before the advent of fax or email, many offices used a telex machine (also known as a teleprinter or teletype machine). These used the telephone lines to send messages consisting of text from one machine to another. Messages were legally binding and operated in real-time, with answerback confirmation that the message had successfully been received.
In the 70s, companies started to turn to computers for their large-scale calculation and data processing needs. In fact, the IT department – as it existed back then – was more usually termed the Data Processing department.
At the beginning of the decade, a computer generally meant a room-sized mainframe, but by the end of the 1970s, video displays and computer monitors became more widely available and computing started to become more personal.
In the early 70s, punch cards were still used for the input of data. For example, at the Electricity Board, workers would input meter readings that in turn would generate bills for posting out to customers. The cards would come back to a central filing system and when the bill had been paid, a manual search against the original card would have to be made. Once found, it would be discarded. Where bills hadn’t been paid by a certain date, the cards would be manually extracted, then uploaded for printing out red reminder bills.
In 1976, Wang Laboratories introduced the first, dedicated computer word processing machine. The first successfully mass-marketed personal computer was the Commodore PET, introduced in January 1977. This, along with other PCs, wasn’t dedicated to one application, but instead could handle multiple software programmes. This heralded the advent of independent software production and the shaping of office computer applications as we know them today. For example, in 1978, the popular WordStar word processing software was released, and then VisiCalc – for spreadsheets – came along at the very end of the decade. PCs weren’t extensively adopted for office use until the mid-80s though.
8 inch floppy disks had became commercially available in 1971 and after that the use of tape cassettes as data storage started to decline; in 1976 things progressed and 5.25 inch disks came into use. These truly were floppy and didn’t come with hard plastic casings until the 3.5 inch disks came about in the 1980s.
Printers in the 1970s were mainly used by Data Processing teams. The laser printer had been invented in 1969 but it wasn’t commercially available until much later. Instead, the dominant technology was dot matrix printing, which employed “tank track” to carry the print head back and forth across the paper to print. Daisy wheel printers were also available. These had a wheel of characters that rotated to the correct letter before “hammering” the print onto the paper, a bit like with typewriter technology.
What are your memories of the 1970s office? Did your company have the technology we’ve described – or was it more advanced? How would you have managed with 1970s technology? We’d love to hear your views. Tweet us @MargolisUK and let us know what you think.
Other posts in this series: