Last week when I was deeply behind schedule on something, and thinking that everything around me was moving way too fast, I took a moment to daydream about the times early in my career when it seemed like I had things better under control. It struck me the number of complete changeovers in work technology I’ve seen in my career.
When I went to college, we had just finished sending a man to the moon in a suit made of shower curtains (vinyl) , Happy Birthday helium balloons (metalized Mylar) and a motorcycle helmet (polycarbonate), all controlled by less computer power than a Fitbit. The computers we did have were programmed using decks of punched cards with instructions written in a language called FORTRAN. You could search for an out-of-place card in your deck all day. And dropping the deck was as disastrous as, say dropping your cell phone is today.
But as time passed, the manual typewriter and Corrasable (pencil-erase wax paper) gave way to electric typewriters, which were available to most secretaries by 1978 when I started at Rohm and Haas. Secretary is an old term I’d like to spend a moment on. Secretaries were specialist scribes—there was no keyboard in your laboratory or office. You hand-wrote the report and gave it to the scribe. Additionally, a secretary was the human interface to your office, and did more to make the company run smoothly than any of the rest of us.
When I moved to Firestone Plastics Co in Pottstown, PA in 1979, I had nearly half-time use of a secretary, Doris Shirey, who took care of me and my boss (which we frankly needed). Doris typed our reports, and at the beginning was still using carbon paper for copies. Editing a typed document came at a cost. I got used to thinking of words that would fit in an available space if whited-out rather than having to have the page re-typed.
Doris answered the telephone by punching the button for the appropriate line. Telephones in those days were attached to a wire and you were pinned down when you used it. She took messages and wrote them on pink pieces of paper that said “While You Were Out” (voice mail?) and she mainly kept us from self-detonating. That was a palpable risk because both Ray and I were, well, a little mercurial. There was a fair amount of counseling and ruffled feather smoothing that went along with the position as well.
In fact, in these days after two or three more generations of technology, when we all do our own typing, answer our own cell phones and pretty much operate independently, it strikes me that something is lost by not having that gatekeeper, that human interface to the outside world. And it’s a loss from both sides. Doris was our buffer from the threatening people in the world and she protected them from us. I learned early on that good treatment of the secretaries and the receptionists and all the other people who were lower on the official importance list was your royal road to access to those who were more officially important. And I’m thinking that to the extent they’re still there in other jobs today, the Doris Shireys of the world carry a lot of weight.
Not long after I arrived in Pottstown we got a copying machine. I mean one that we were really allowed to use—previous models were deemed too expensive by our management. Doris was liberated from the tyranny of carbon paper. And it wasn’t too long after that when someone spliced the gene for a telephone into a copier plasmid and the fax machine was born.
The first time a fax machine figured intimately in my work was December of 1986. Now this wasn’t exceptionally early in the history of faxing, but I remember it clearly. We were negotiating a contract for our first license of technology into China. The Wuxi Electrochemical plant had money to spend, but it had to be spent by the end of the year.
We negotiated the contract by fax. Fifty pages back and forth in the last days of December at about a page a minute, and I remember standing there waiting for the pages to come off our machine. From China! Heaven only knows what the phone bill was.
Of course, now the idea of putting a piece of paper in an envelope and sending it to someone for arrival three days from now (or never, depending) is utterly unacceptable on a time and efficiency basis. And yet, I kind of miss that three day lag that gave you a plausible excuse to take an extra day to get the work done. “No, I put it in the mail yesterday. I can’t imagine why you don’t have it.”
If you think your life moves too fast, the intervention that should have been made was to destroy all the fax machines. That’s where it all started. And I promise next month to write about something less ancient.
Dr. William F. Carroll, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. He received an M.S. from Tulane University in New Orleans, and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN. He holds two patents, and has over sixty-five publications in the fields of organic electrochemistry, polymer chemistry, combustion chemistry, incineration and plastics recycling.