Today, when most of us head into the office, our quiet digital tools are ready and waiting, maintained by technology professionals and other unseen hands. But office work used to be much more of a do-it-yourself, hands-on affair. A sophisticated turn-of-the-century office, for example, might have boasted candlestick telephones, fountain pens with ink bottles, and a very rudimentary calculating machine, all ready and more than willing to malfunction at exactly the wrong time.

When copies of an important document needed to be produced, you didn't just knock out a PowerPoint and click send. Materials would have to be carefully gathered for the printer, who would laboriously set your peerless prose in type and then print your document by hand. Days might pass before your plan to re-organize the Midwest sales division would see the light of day.

One could send important communications by telegraph, either using Morse code or by sitting down at a printing telegraph machine. Early typewriters appeared in 1874, when E. Remington & Sons offered their customers a Sholes & Glidden “Type Writer” for $125. But the machines didn't really catch on broadly until the popular Underwood models of the 20th century.

Distributing what had been typed was not as automatic as the appearance of the FedEx truck at 4pm. Letters would have to be weighed before proper postage could be affixed, and then someone would have to trudge off to the nearest post office to make sure missives were mailed in time.

Much later in the 20th century, higher-tech office equipment came along, like slide rules, mechanical pencils, carbon paper, electronic calculators, and ultimately personal computers. Was this progress? We're not really sure!


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