Working from home in the 1920s | Heart Internet Blog – Focusing on all aspects of the web

Working from home has become the new normal for many people. We talked about how to successfully make this transition, back in April.

Of course, for developers, designers, freelancers and side-hustlers, 2020 has been more a case of “welcome to our world” than it has been a huge change of working patterns.

Many of us have taken a moment, during this most unprecedented of years, to be thankful for our broadband, our laptops and our video-conferencing. How would businesses have coped without these relatively new technologies?

To help us appreciate how these technological innovations have helped keep many of us working effectively and profitably during this extraordinary year, let’s take a not-entirely-serious look at what working from home would have been like, without any of these facilities, a century ago.

Clocking-on in 1920

In 2020, we have two-factor authentication hassle and passwords to contend with when clocking in to work remotely. Imagine, however, what this process would have been like in the 1920s.

You would have had to walk to the nearest telephone box (domestic phones were still a novelty enjoyed by only the extremely wealthy) and join the queue. It would have been best to get there an hour or two early, as the queues would have become quite lengthy.

When it was your turn, you’d have had to call your local exchange (which would have been in your local post office) who would have put you through to your head office’s local exchange, which would then have had to relay your call to your office’s phone operator, who would have had to put you through to your office’s Time Keeper. You’d have waited patiently for them to return from their morning tea break, after which they would have checked your name against their official list of Human Resources, then selected your time-clock card and clocked you in.

Simplicity itself!

Wireless communication in 1920

Where would we be without wireless? Well, tied down by wires, is the obvious answer. But, there’s nothing new about wireless technology. If your boss was to send you the equivalent of an email, back in 1920, it would have been called a telegram. It would have been sent by Morse Code to your local wireless telegraph office, printed out on a ticker-tape machine and delivered to your door, by hand, by an intern proudly taking on their first job after completing all six years of their education.

You would dictate a reply to this same youth, who would dash back to the telegraph office and recite something vaguely resembling your message to the telegraph operator, who would send it back to head office. In this way, you could send and receive up to three missives in a day.

Home computing in 1920

Whilst the only thing you’d have on your lap top (SIC) in 1920s was your cat, you could have still employed a home computer. Then, as now, there were various competing models of computers that were perfect for working at home, each of which had their exponents.

For example, you might have had a Differential Analyser. This analogue computer was perfect for solving differential equations by integration, which was actually very useful for engineering, physics and economics. Unfortunately, Differential Analysers ranged in size from the size of a room to the size of fridge freezer.

If you wanted something more portable, engineers and mathematicians pioneered the first portable analogue computer – by sticking a slide-rule in their pocket. These powerful devices were perfect for all your multiplication and division needs, with optional extra features such as roots, logarithms, trig and other forms of calculation most of us learned at school and haven’t used since.

If your need was less geared towards maths and engineering and more towards creating written content, you would have the very latest in manual typewriter technology at your fingertips. Featuring no less than one font, your manual typewriter was equipped with upper and lower case keys, a convenient carriage-return lever and optional carbon paper. Perfect for those occasions when only hard-copy would do.

Telecommuting in 1920

The notion of “Telecommuting” was first proposed back in 1973 by a former-NASA engineer called Jack Nilles, in response to traffic gridlock and fuel shortages.

Nilles proposed businesses could set up small satellite offices, close enough to head quarters that employees could walk or cycle to them, to deliver work they’d done and collect more work to do. Middle managers would be the only ones who would spend any time on the road, taking that work from head office to the local office, and returning with the completed jobs.

Well, if we scroll that idea back another half a century, to the 1920s, you would have had work delivered to your door, rather like your morning paper. Your line manager would drive around to visit his team, one by one. He’d turn up in a horse-drawn cart and, rattling around on the back of this, he’d have an admin person putting together a folder of work for you.

For the sake of efficiency, this work would be delivered to you on a telescopic arm, extended from the moving cart. You needed to be there on the pavement, limbered-up and wearing a decent pair of running shoes, ready to catch the bag of work and swap it with your bag of completed, carefully-calculated and immaculately-typed work. Since the work-horse wouldn’t stop, you’d need to do this on the move. The telescopic arm, of course, put the ‘tele’ into telecommuting.

Video conferencing in 1920

The most valuable player of 2020 has, almost certainly, been Zoom. Without this video conferencing platform, many businesses could well have ground to a halt. Other video conferencing platforms are available, of course, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and Skype to name but three; but Zoom has been the breakout success story of this year, experiencing a 30-fold increase in use between March and April, with more than 300 million people in virtual meetings.

Of course, a hundred years ago, a video conference would have been a very different affair. One method would have involved hanging a painting of the boss on your wall and shouting “Are you frozen or am I?” at it. Another popular method involved standing on your roof with a loud hailer. Some companies tried pioneering the baked-bean-cans-and-string platform, but the download speeds on that were terrible. This is the origin of all requests to IT support being answered with the phrase: “How long’s a piece of string?”

Working from home in 2020

But seriously, folks. We’re looking for the silver linings in working from home in 2020. What positives have you discovered from using modern technology to work from home? Come and find us on social media and tell us what’s working well for you.


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