Getting Things Done in the 1970s: Office history Part II

Posted on by Mike Evans

There’s no excuse in 2011 for a lack of efficiency. We have such wonderful tools as OmniFocus to keep all our ducks in a row. And computers can do just about anything. Go back forty years, though, and it’s a completely different story. Efficiency in those days meant painstaking attention to detail and lots of hard slog. Things that happen in seconds on our computers could mean days of manual labour.

This is the second in my office history series covering the last four decades of the twentieth century. We are back in the 1970s. Flared pants, flower-power shirts with massive wing collars and monster sideburns were the order of the day. Yet in our offices little had changed over the previous fifty years. Old methods were still supreme, but quicker ways of doing things gradually became more common. This was the last pre-PC decade and, at the time, it was impossible to anticipate the tremendous advances we would see in the 80s.

Here is a personal history of small and home office life 40 years ago. Other office workers, particularly those in large companies which already had mainframe computers, will have a different and maybe more modern view, but my recollections are based on the typical small office or home office of the period.

Last week I covered the 1960s but, for all the technology involved, it could as well have been the 1860s. Before the early 80s, advances were glacially slow.

In the last year of the 60s I had left journalism and taken the bold step of starting a PR company in central London. My new company had been founded in late 1968 and the 1970s represented a decade of growth and steadily increasing experience. Much of it was by trial and error, especially in the field of office technology.

A limited company it might have been, but it started as a one-man operation where I did everything. I soon became familiar with office life since a good proportion of my time was spent in front of the typewriter and on the telephone. A significant chunk of any working day went on composing, producing and mailing press release for a growing band of clients.  Most of them were in the automotive world and that became my speciality.

Production tools

Technology arrived in my office in 1970 in the form of an IBM golfball typewriter, the wonder of the age. It even looked as though it belonged to the future. It was introduced during the sixties but was far out of my financial grasp until I had a few clients under my belt.

Not only was this paragon electrically operated, it came with a box of golfball type heads so I could flavour my texts with such wonderful innovations as italics, bold headlines and contrasting fonts. Up to then, the sole forms of emphasis available to the manual typist were capitals, underlining, double spacing and colour (most old-fashioned typewriters came with a divided red and black fabric ribbon that could be selected by a mechanical lever). The Selectric was monospaced, just like a traditional typewriter so results were limited and still looked very much like typescript. Later in the decade, to help produce newsletters and small newspapers, we bought a proportional-space version of the Selectric, the IBM Composing Machine. This model could even justify text but in a cumbersome method that involved double typing of each line.

Having different typefaces with the standard Selectric was sheer luxury, however,  and I could at last make my letters and press releases look professional and interesting. The IBM Selectric golfball was a watershed in technology. It was a piece of equipment with intelligence, however limited. How else would it know exactly where to position the spinning ball to print a particular character? I was captivated and the IBM was cited in our new-client proposals as evidence of our modernity and peerless ability.


Telex was an important communications medium until the advent of the fax machine in the late 80s and several of our clients used telex regularly to keep in contact with their parent companies in Japan, Germany and Austria. So we rented a telex machine in 1973 and this offered a more reliable means of getting copy approved. We even used it on some occasions to sent press material to the media. They must have hated us as their machine spewed out reams of PR wordage.

The telex is essentially a large typewriter with a punch-tape unit. It operates entirely in upper case and, prior to transmission, a tape would be prepared and checked. It could then be transmitted automatically once the number had been dialled and the connection made.  British Telecom discontinued the telex service in 2008. I still shudder at the remembered sound of the telex machine stuttering into action because it usually brought more demands from insatiable clients.


Apart from the IBM and the telex, the rest of the office continued in 1960s mode. Photocopiers did not exist, or were far too expensive for my humble bureau. Instead we had that wonderful anachronism, the duplicator (sometimes called a Mimeograph in the USA). These monsters came in two flavours, Roneo and Gesteter. It was a bit like Windows and Mac. I was a Roneo man and wouldn’t look twice at a Gestetner. Both operated in exactly the same manner and both contained a large drum of ink with a porous fabric covering which rolled the stencil onto the paper.

Stencils, consisting of a heavyweight paper backing with an opaque, waxy covering sheet made from mulberry paper (really, I didn’t know, but Wikipedia must be right), were attached to the drum by means of locating pegs and a securing clip. The ink seeped through the typed text and prints were made on extra-absorbent special duplicator paper when the handle was turned to move the drum. Operation was a messy process at the best of times and most days I would end up covered in sticky ink as I was about to attend a client meeting. It was also difficult to get perfect results as the ink was often inconsistently distributed across the surface of the drum.

If the drum needed replenishing it was necessary to squeeze out a giant tube of ink into the charging hole, a bit like adding oil to a car engine.  We possessed two drums—one with black ink and one with brown—so we could produce more interesting prints. This was great luxury and another selling point for the consultancy: Two Roneo drums, no less.

Without doubt, though, stencil preparation was the worst bit. First I would draft the client’s releases and read the copy over the telephone—or send by telex—for approval. Once agreed, the text would be typed onto a duplicator stencil. The complete stencil unit was be fed onto the typewriter and the print ribbon disabled with the stencil switch—a facility which even ancient typewriters possessed. The IBM Selectric wasn’t the best stencil maker because the bits of mulberry paper continually clogged up the little letters on the golfball. 

It was then a painstaking job to type the text without mistakes. Small typos could be corrected using red nail varnish (sold by stationers as “correcting fluid”) but anything major meant starting again. My nightmare was the last-minute client correction just as I had all my stencils ready to go to the Roneo. Any additional paragraphs were a disaster and often it would be necessary to retype an entire multi-page document.

Most of our stuff was text only. You could draw on stencil with a metal stylus, but the results were crude and unsuitable for a professional outfit such as ours. Churches and clubs carved stencils with gay abandon, however. Illustrations could be made with a stencil scanner, a very expensive piece of equipment that etched photographs onto stencils very slowly. There was a send-away service but most of the time we just didn’t bother.

Once the prints had been made on the Roneo more manual labour came in the form of collation and folding. There were machines to do these tasks but they were tricky and unreliable. I preferred the manual approach, probably because I couldn’t afford the mechanisation. It didn’t end there, of course. Envelopes had to be prepared and addressed individually. Mostly I would type the addresses from scratch, but we did experiment with mechanical aids.

Addressing machines

Best results came from the ancient Addressograph machine I bought in a second-hand office store for ten shillings (50 pence, 80 cents). The heavy metal address plates were slammed down on the envelope through a wide inked ribbon. This was all well and good, but the lists of addresses had to be sent away to be turned into embossed metal plates, with the obvious problems in maintaining an up-to-date mailing list.

More convenient but less effective was the stencil addresser. Here, small stencils were prepared on the typewriter and attached to a cardboard frame. This frame was then fed through a mini duplicator which forced ink through the stencil and left a very shaky and indistinct address on the envelope. At one stage we possessed an electric version which was forever jamming and producing indifferent results. Maintenance of the stencil mailing list was easier because we had control of the process, but the whole operation was messy and inconvenient.

Addressing envelopes was a constant irritation. Neither of the mechanical methods worked well and we even experimented with a spirit duplicator system. This was definitely the worst of the lot, but glue sniffers would have loved it.

The day was not over when we had printed, collated, folded and enveloped the hundreds of releases. It was time to stick on the stamps and stagger off to the post office. Later, towards the end of the 70s, we acquired a Pitney Bowes franking machine that took some of the hassle out of the job. But still there was a great deal of repetitive manual labour involved in getting information out to the press.

Mobile phones

Cellphones as we know them belong to the 1980s, but mobile phones had been available for use in vehicles for several decades. As a busy executive I needed to keep in touch and the idea of talking to clients while driving around was extremely tantalising. If you wanted a mobile phone in the 1970s there was only one choice, the national Radiophone network. This was an operator-based system with coverage in major conurbations and along major roads.

The kit consisted of a large unit mounted in the rear luggage space and a small black box with coloured lights sitting under the dashboard. Between the front seats of the car was a huge black handset, similar to a standard telephone receiver but with the addition of a talk button in the handle. You pressed the button to talk, released it to listen. It was all a bit roger-over-and-out and not exactly conducive to a productive business discussion.  The best bit of the whole contraption was the large whippy antenna which pronounced very-important-radiophone-user approaching. At least I thought so.

Making a call was a hit or miss affair. You would press a button on the dashboard control box and wait for the operator to answer. Then you could ask for a normal telephone number or the very important Radiophone 123 address of a fellow sucker. I seem to remember there were only three digits, so we were an exclusive bunch by any reckoning. Eventually you might or might not get through, then you could lose contact and have to start over again. A bit like modern cellphones, that is.

Among the minor inconveniences of the system was the need to own a licence. And this was my undoing one day in 1975 when I was driving through East Germany to Berlin. I hadn’t thought anything about the car phone until the East German border guards sniffed it out and pronounced it contrabrand. After a couple of hours of conflab with Berlin, they condescended to allow me in provided I took out a licence for use of the radiophone in the German Democratic Republic. I was told not to use it, despite the licence, on pain of dreadful punishment. Of course, it wouldn’t have worked anyway. This cost me a large amount of cash, but it was a relief not to have to dismantle the contraption and leave it at the Helmstedt border crossing.

The Radiophone was all a bit fanciful and, as I remember, hideously expensive both to rent the equipment and pay for individual calls. It did more for my ego than for the business, I suspect.

Correspondence, filing

No email in the 1970s, just the telephone, the telegram, the telex and the good old letter. Most of our non-telephone contact was made by letter and it was usual to wait a week or so for a reply. Things went slowly most of the time in that more leisurely age. Every letter had to be typed on company letterhead with a sheet of carbon paper and flimsy paper to produce the file copy. This was another laborious process that takes only seconds in 2011. Scrapped failed attempts and copious Tippex were normal daily fare. Any sort of circular letter had to be produced on the good old messy duplicator and topped and tailed in handwriting to create a semblance of personal attention.

Filing was entirely manual, of course, and worked on the garbage-in-garbage-out principle. Every individual had a personal view of the right way to file and the organisation of a system. New staff brought their own prejudices and never followed the agreed system. The result was that it was seldom easy to find anything.

Towards the end of the decade I imposed a numbered filing system based on a decimal system and the ten major projects of the Time Management theory. Clients occupied one main slot in the 1-9 range and this was followed by a three-digit client code for the client, and a two-digit project code. Other aspects of running the business, such as finance, company management, had their own slots in the range, as did personal at No.9.

A typical filing number would be 4.653.35 where 4 represented the major area of activity—such as client relations—and the 653 would be the client’s number. The 35 was a specific file relating to that client. We tried to keep similar file numbers of similar areas of each client’s activity so the whole system was easier to remember.  Rather than leaving the filing decision to a number of different people with conflicting ideas, the account manager could number the documents and they would then find their way into the correct file. It sounds complicated. It was, but it worked well enough and imposed a system on top of the usual chaos.

I was often attracted by the idea of taking microfiche copies of correspondence which could then be catalogued and viewed on a reader machine. Although the technology did exist, it was all too advanced and expensive for a small company such as ours. Now, of course, a Fujitsu Scansnap would make short shrift of our 1970s workload.

The office supply rep, scams

In the 1970s we were plagued by the multitude of salesmen (they were mostly men in those days) and a hard-faced lot they were too. They would call to flog equipment, stationery and new ideas. There was the Roneo rep, the IBM rep (a rather superior being by any reckoning) and the stationery rep. But the biggest nuisance was the carbon-paper salesman. In those days offices consumed a large amount of carbon paper and, value for weight, it was the most expensive item in the office. Carbon paper scams abounded. The unsuspecting secretary would order a “box” of carbon paper, expecting a hundred sheets, and end up with a box that had to be craned into the office through the window at a cost of many hundreds of pounds. We were constantly on guard against the carbon-paper scammers who were every bit as annoying and costly as today’s scammers and spammers.

Another scam we had to watch out for was the spurious directory, usually produced abroad and well outside the reach of the British fraud police. It was very easy to order an advertisement or lineage entry in one of these directories and end up with a big bill for nothing. These directories sounded plausible and were one of the only ways of getting your company known in pre-internet days. Unfortunately few of them were every produced and still fewer were distributed widely.

Getting Things Done

About this time I started to take an interest in effective project management. I began “getting things done” in an efficient manner, although I didn’t hear the term GTD for decades. I’d always been a list maker but in the 70s I dabbled with manual systems for diaries and task management—including the Franklin day planner and various Filofax-based systems. The 1980s were to be the decade of the Filofax, clutched in the hand of every self-respecting yuppie.

There were still no computers in small offices so every system involved lots of writing and transferring of tasks from one section to another. Procrastination was a laborious process in those days, involving lots of pencil work and rubbing out. I was constantly looking for some magical manual system that would simplify project management and, importantly, could be relied on completely. I attended several “time management” courses where I was encouraged to work with a maximum of ten main areas of activity. This always struck me as sensible. The more categories or tags you create, the less likely are you to remember them. So for twenty years I divided my life, business and personal, into no more than ten categories or major projects. Through time management I became acquainted with the need to set goals and to sub-divide large projects into smaller one—the so-called “elephant task” that was too daunting to start but became digestible once cut down into “elephant steaks.”

Gradually I came to understand project management and the need for a system to manage the workflow. If only I’d had OmniFocus.

Eve of the computer

In the very early 1980s the office scene was to change dramatically. Practices that had been standard throughout the 20th century and, sometimes, for hundreds of years, were swept away when the first computers arrived. I’ll keep this for the next installment of my office history.

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