Computers Appear in Offices

During the 1980s things changed very quickly. 

Since the early 20th century, all businesses and organisations employed secretaries who were skilled typists. They used typewriters to produce professional looking letters, memos and documents for the senior staff who either hand wrote them or dictated directly and the secretary would write it down, often using shorthand for speed. The document would then be typed up. Often, they would use several sheets of paper with carbon paper between them. This would make several “carbon copies” of the document in one typing - and is the origin of the optional “cc” (for carbon copy) in the “To” line of emails..

typing pool

Large organisations would have a Typing Pool of skilled typists

Video of a typewriter being used.

During the 1980s, the first word processor software began to appear on the new, desktop sized personal computers (PCs). The PCs had keyboards with the identical layout to that on typewriters (the “qwerty” keyboard) which had been designed around 1870 to spread the common letters so that the typewriter keys would be less likely to jam together when typing at speed.

For a long time it was much quicker for a competent typist to produce a professional document on a typewriter than to struggle with the menu system of these early word processors. They had no mouse and the screen was small white or green characters on a black or green background. You couldn’t see what the finished document would look like and even moving the cursor meant memorising keyboard combinations (see screenshot below).


Typical wordprocessor screen from the 1990s.

Secretaries went on training courses of course but they carried on using their typewriters for speed.

However, the new word processors had one enormous advantage - if the manager wanted even the tiniest change, the entire document had to be typed out again. Using a word processor, it could be retrieved, altered and re-printed. This alone made it worth learning all the keypresses and commands and within a very few years, typewriters had all but disappeared from offices across the world.

word processor

A wordprocesser from the 1980s

It was the beginning of the computerisation of everything. Before long, accountants were using spreadsheets, production lines were beginning to be automated and managers were typing their own letters.

The era of the typing pool, and of shorthand-and-typing classes for girls was over.

Next: Computers Appear in Homes

© Brian Smith 2015