11 World-Changing Office Innovations Prior to the Internet

RealClear Staff


Inventions popularized by Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Graham Bell and a company by the name of Xerox did wonders for productivity long before Microsoft and Apple made things better. Forget e-mail; bring back the pneumatic tube!

1. The Polygraph (1803)

Patented by English inventor John Isaac Hawkins, the method of creating a duplicate as a letter is being written was most famously used by the Thomas Jefferson -- America's third president swore by it. Because Jefferson was a prolific letter writer, the preservation of his copies have been invaluable to historians; Jefferson called the polygraph "the finest invention of the present age."

2. The Metal Dip Pen (1822)

From the 6th century through the early part of the 19th century, letter writers ad accountants were held hostage by the quill pen -- from the feather of a bird. The metal dip pen changed all that. With its smooth surface, users could write faster than with the scratchy quill, and didn't have to reload ink as often.

3. The Filing Cabinet (1850s)

This seems like a no-brainer -- and certainly the technology to build filing cabinets had been around for centuries. But filing cabinets were only developed in the U.S. in the 1850s and they immediately revolutionized business development. Prior to filing drawer systems, paperwork was filed on shelves, in desk drawers, and in boxes.

4. The Pneumatic Tube (1855)

The pneumatic tube is a vacuum-pressured device designed to shoot documents and small packages to a person on the other end. Today they're still around at some bank drive-ins; but in its heyday, big cities had a vast underground network of pneumatic tubes that delivered its contents through metallic capsules. It was also used in offices to transport documents to colleagues in different parts of the building. The first one was set up in 1855, a 220-yard pneumatic system between the London Stock Exchange and the Electric Telegraph Company.

5. The Typewriter (1873)

Still super reliable, Remington portable typewriters of the 1920s and '30s are a familiar sight in antique shops and flea markets. E. Remington and Sons developed the first commercial typewriter in 1873, and Remington No. 2 of 1878 was the first typewriter to include both upper and lower case letters via a shift key – and led to the popularity of the QWERTY layout.

6. The Telephone (1876)

Well, duh. Alexander Graham Bell's invention marked a sea change in modern society in general, and exponentially increased the efficiency of business, negating the need for constant in-person meetings. Even before telephones were widespread, businessmen used private lines to link home and office.

7. The Dictaphone (1907)

Alexander Graham Bell developed this one too.  Bell and his associates created the Volta Graphophone Company -- which eventually became Columbia Records -- to produce a wax recording system that made stenographers more efficient, replacing the live dictation taken in shorthand.

8. The Copy Machine (1959)

Although Xerox had early success in 1949 with the Model A copier, nicknamed "The Ox Box," the first commercial model Xerox machine prompted a dramatic change in the workplace a decade later. The Xerox 914, was bulky and cumbersome. It weighed nearly 650 pounds and was the size of about two washing machines and was prone to spontaneous combustion. Yet they were instantly popular.

9. The Fax Machine (1964)

Xerox expanded into facsimile with its LDX (Long Distance Xerography) system in 1964. The LDX scanner and printer weighed nearly 1,100 pounds together, but it could transmit a page in less than eight seconds.


10. E-mail (1971)

Ray Tomlinson (above) sent the first e-mail in 1971. He implemented an e-mail system that was the first system able to send mail between users on different hosts connected to the ARPAnet. (Previously, mail could be sent only to others who used the same computer.)

11. Computers (1975)

Although computers have been used in the workforce since the 1930s (the U.S. government used computers, such as the 1951 behemoth above, to conduct census counts and create strategies for defense systems), the year 1975 ushered in a new era in computer science and information systems technology which would impact the workforce in areas of training and job creation for the next 35 years, before more advanced systems that we use today became prevalent.



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