Literary Archaeology: Staples of History: The Office in HistFic

By Jon Black

Bob Cratchit, fiction’s most famous office drone.

So, this is the first blog post I’ve ever written inspired by a dream. I don’t even remember the dream, but I woke with the incredibly distinctive scent of mimeograph fluid in my nostrils. For readers who are two young to remember, mimeographing is a technology for reproducing documents in massive quantities. In the commercial world, mimeographing was replaced by copiers in the commercial world by the mid to late 1980s. In more poorly funded institutions, like schools, mimeographing held on rather longer, the early to mid 90s in some locations. For me, the distinctive spicy-ammonia smell of mimeograph fluid, and the warm, slightly damp feel of copies that had recently come off the machine, instantly calls to mind memories of junior high school.

This got me reflecting on what other office technologies have been left behind over the centuries. While it seems unlikely that a Historical Fiction narrative would ever turn on such matters, they can be an interesting part of a story’s background, making it come alive and subtly highlighting how the past is, indeed, a foreign country.

This post is not comprehensive. While technologies are organized in general categories, it does not cover every technology in a given category (for example, the telephone has been omitted from communications, a device that has been so fundamental and changed in so many ways over its long history could easily be the subject of its own post). Depending on the response to this post, I may make other business/office technologies the subject of future blogs. What I have presented today are simply the technologies that, for whatever reason, caught my attention this time.


Double Entry Book Keeping.

Historical Ledger

One of many ideas that seems obvious in hindsight and, once embraced, transformed the world in ways so profound they are taken for granted. It requires each entry in an account to be matched by an opposite entry in another account. For example, spending $100 on printer toner would be recorded as a $100 debt to a “Revenue” account and a $100 credit on an “Expenditure” account. Double-Entry Bookkeeping provides business and organizations the ability to see clearly where their money is coming from and going while making accidental errors and deliberate fraud much easier to spot.

There are indications that Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty may have used doubly-entry notation as early as the 10th century, though the system was later discontinued. It cropped up again in Italy, possibly as early as the late 13th century, and definitely in use in Genoa by the 1340s. It had spread throughout Italy by the 15th century, the oldest surviving accounting textbook appeared in 1494, written by Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan monk and friend of da Vinci (perhaps unsurprisingly leading some Leonardophiles to suggest he was the true brains behind the book).

Strange as it sounds, I have a special weakness for Double-Entry notion in fiction. In Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, one of the first great time travel stories (that segues into alt-history), a “modern” (1930s) protagonist saves the late Roman Empire from falling … not with “go-to” time travel/alt-history technologies such a gunpowder, but with subtler innovations like distilling and double-entry bookkeeping. TANGENT ALERT: anyone interested in historical fiction, time travel, or alt-history (the work could arguably be considered all three) really needs to read Lest Darkness Fall. Nearly alone within the genre, closing in on a century after publication, the story still feels contemporary and clever.


Pneumatic Tubes

Pneumatic Tube Central Dispatch, circa 1940.

An early and successful attempt at automation, these steam-driven systems of tubes used small capsules driven by combination of pressure and vacuum to transport documents and messages within a building a or between nearby buildings.

The first pneumatic tube systems was installed in 1836 and the technology was in widespread use until the years following WWII. Modern examples are still common at drive-through banks and it is not unheard of to find a larger system still in operation.

Straying from HisFic, the style of pneumatic tubes is great for steam-punk, deco punk, or any other appropriate genre of retrofuturism. And, because of the sheer size and invasiveness of infrastructure, removing them is cost-prohibitive. Pneumatic tube infrastructure still remains, unused, within many period-appropriate buildings. An author could, no doubt, find many clever applications for that.


E-trading in 1918.

The earliest digital electronic communications device, its transmitting the latest stock market information by stock value and volume of trading along telegraph lines. The name is reference to the ticking sound it made as it imprinted information on a long paper roll.

Invented in 1870, the devices quickly became widespread and are ubiquitous part of the image of corporate America in the 1920s an 30s. Broadcast media and computers rendered tickertape obsolete by the 1960s, but the process didn’t die until 1970, exactly a century after its introduction.



Pencil allegedly made by Thoreau.

With the discovery of commercially minable graphite deposits in the late 16th century. Wooden encasement appeared almost immediately, first documented in Italy. Nomenclature notwithstanding, lead has not been used as a writing element, the name stems from the erroneous pre-modern conception that graphite was a form of lead. In an emergency, graphite powder mixed with certain types of clay can be substituted for solid graphite.  Pencils with erasers attached to the pencil appear no later than 1858. The common mechanical pencil sharpener dates from 1848, electric versions from 1917.


An 1870 Hansen Writing Ball.

The 16th to 19th centuries saw a multitude of devices, some merely alleged others well documented, which could be called proto-typewriters. None failed to catch on.

The first commercially typewriter appeared in 1865, an odd looking device known as the Hansen Writing Ball invented by a Danish clergyman. The first commercially successful model, and the first to resemble modern ideas of a typewriter, was the Sholes and Gilden Type-Writer, first produced in 1868.

The shift key appeared in 1878, drastically increasing the number of characters a typewriter could render. Electrical typewriters first appear in the 1920s and were popular by the 1930s, though mechanical models continued to be popular for private use.

Replaced the typebars (or keys) with a rotating ball.  Such designs became popular but never completely eclipsed typebar modles.

The now nearly universal QWERTY layout appeared in 1874, competing with several other layouts, some of which were more efficient for typing than the QWERTY. The oft repeated explanation that the inefficient QWERTY adopted because its prevented typing so rapidly that keys jammed together is quite plausible but not actually verifiable.


19th century Stapler.

Correction Fluid: (used for written as well as type documents) appear in the 1950s, the first commercially successful formulation was developed in 1956 Bette Nesmith Graham (who, in a curious twist of fate, was the mother of Monkees’ guitarist Mike Nesmith).

Paper Clips: While an imperfect model debuted in 1867, the modern paper clip first appears in possibly in the 1870s, certainly by 1899.

Staples: the first staplers originated in 18th century France, as tools of the royal court. A continuation of the old idea of the royal seal, each stable was engraved with the king’s insignia. A more business-friend version emerged in the 1860s, but the modern stapler design had to wait until 1941.