Office mechanisation: from typewriters to AI

Nowadays, our offices are suffused with technology. The modern business world would quickly come to a standstill without computers and the internet. Automation software is on the path to becoming ubiquitous, and we’re also readying to welcome AI as the next round of office mechanisation.

Who would have thought that all this office transformation started with the humble typewriter? Indeed, the office has come a long way since it became distinct from the home in the 17th century.

So, we’ve explored the history of office mechanisation. Here’s a look at how technology helped to shape the workplace into the offices of today.

The invention of the office

The office, as we understand it, came into existence in the 17th century. This was when more professionals began to work from offices in major cities.

At this time, office work entailed writing documents and letters by hand using a quill and parchment. Making a copy meant writing the document out by hand again.

Office workers would also spend time doing sums in their heads. They’d send out bills and keep (hand-written) records of transactions. Any communication or correspondence, meanwhile, was either via face-to-face conversation or written letters.

Early office mechanisation

The mechanisation of office work started in the 19th century. The introduction of both the typewriter and the ‘adding machine’ to the office space changed the way people worked.

The typewriter, in particular, was the innovation of century when it came to office work. The first typewriter (which was Remington-made) saw its debut in 1874. A second model, capable of both uppercase and lowercase letters, would appear four years later, in 1878.

This invention revolutionised writing tasks within offices. Not only would written documents now have uniform text, but the quantity written in the same time increased exponentially. The introduction of the typewriter also made copying documents far less tedious. Combining this office mechanisation tool with carbon paper meant office workers could simultaneously type the document for the first time and produce copies.

The adding machine, meanwhile, aided office workers with calculations and finances. These devices would specialise in handling additions (and subtractions in some cases). They were a core part of office mechanisation until calculators could take over in the 1970s.

An influx of tech

The typewriter and adding machines were the first real revolutionary office mechanisations, but an influx of technology steadily swelled their ranks throughout the 19th and early 20th century.

For example, Bell’s telephone, Morse’s telegraph, and Edison’s dictating machine changed the way we complete and conceptualise work. (As well as influencing the office design we’re used to today.)

Then there was the fax machine. Invented in 1843, it would take almost a century for fax to become commercialised. This happened in 1964, courtesy of Xerox and their introduction of Long-Distance Xerography. The subsequent Magnafax Telecopier (1966) could be connected to any telephone line and could transmit a letter-sized document in six minutes. In a pre-internet era, this was a ground-breaking advancement.

Enter computers

The next office mechanisation explosion came in the shape of the computer. In the late 1970s, personal computers started to replace typewriters and adding machines. Apple released the Apple II in 1977, and IBM followed with the first PC in 1981. 

However, computers wouldn’t become predominant office mechanisation tools until around the end of the 1990s. Regardless, computers soon became almost ubiquitous with offices. After all, they sport their own desktops, documents and filing systems —even their own recycling bin. As time went on, computers grew more powerful and less expensive.

The introduction of computers into the office meant that tasks like writing, copying, calculating and data storage became reliant on electricity. It also led to future office mechanisation making the jump from hardware tools to software programs.

Hello, internet

The rise of computers as office mechanisation tools was fuelled by the internet. The internet enabled businesses to reach more customers — resulting in more tasks for office workers.

With the internet, email management became another core aspect of office work. Email became the tool of choice for office communication. After all, which would you prefer, writing individual, handwritten letters, or hitting send on an email?

As personal computing became more widely available, workers could check emails and complete tasks from home. The advent of the internet started to blur the lines between ‘office’ and ‘home’.

The present: office automation

The rise of computers as a core office mechanisation tool soon led to more software and more functionality. The next big office mechanisation tool, then, came in the form of business process automation (BPA) software.

Automation software is revolutionising office work on a huge scale. The software solution allows the automatic completion of simple, repetitive tasks. Office workers can also use it to support them with complex workflows. Plus, the software is becoming increasingly adept at a wider range of tasks. So, this office mechanisation tool is only set to grow.

Automation software changes not only the way, but also the way we feel within work. Employees can spend less time on admin and upkeep, and more on higher value work and creativity. This leads to a more collaborative and less stressful office atmosphere.

Artificial intelligence in the office

The next step in the journey of office mechanisation is integration with artificial intelligence. AI is growing in ability and understanding. So, it seems inevitable that the near future will see AI trigger the next mass revolution in the way we work. (And live.)

Beyond that, the future of office mechanisation is less clear. The concept of an “office” might disappear, as we all leave software bots to run businesses with minimal human input. Perhaps biotechnology in the form of microchip implants will see the office embedded under our very skin.

These futuristic fancies are no more outlandish than the concept of a word processer would have been to a 17th century clerk. So, if there’s one thing we can predict, it’s that the concept of office working will evolve in ways it’s difficult to imagine.