28 July 2006

Yesterday's Office Equipment (1)

In my last post, I complained about the meagre remuneration I received as a bank clerk in the late 1970s. That was only half the story... and half the suffering that I went through. Besides paying me a somewhat subsistence salary, my employers then also made me work with obsolete office equipment. Well, to be very fair, the equipment could not be considered really that outdated at that time - they were probably second or even third generation ones. However, when viewing them in the context of today's technological advances, the equipment were real antiques in every sense of the word.

First and foremost, every bank clerk must be equipped with a certain machine. It was a machine that was slightly more sophisticated than this one:

It was a manual adding machine:

Don't you dare sniff at it though. It could be operated when there was a power failure - not by batteries, not by electricity but just by candlelight (so that you could see in the dark lah). It also sported a leading brand name in office equipment at that time - Olivetti. (I learnt from a website that the giant Italian company had since changed its business to focus on telecommunications and IT instead. In Aug 2003, the company also adopted the name 'Telecom Italia'.)

The adding machine that I used had a cranking handle on the right. It was meant to be operated with the right hand only as well as by the right-handed only. (I don't know if the company specially designed left-handed models to cater for left-handed people. I certainly haven't seen any left-handed models at that time, except pretty sashaying ones, perhaps.)

When you want to add two numbers, you simply punch in the first set of figures with the fingers on your right hand, punch the addition (+) sign, punch in the second set of figures, then confidently pull back the handle to see the answer appear magically on the paper roll right before your eyes. You are unlikely to mistake the grand total with any other number because the machine was equipped with a red-black ink ribbon that printed totals in red and other numbers in black:

The machine could probably handle all four arithmetic operations, i.e. addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. However, I recall that it was mostly used for addition and hence its name - adding machine. I think decimal points were handled by punching one of the black buttons with a white dot on it. Some of the senior staff could operate the machine so well that their fingers seemed to be 'tap dancing' effortlessly on the keypad. The 'dancing' was interrupted only by the occasional cranking of the handle. And all these were done without so much as a glance at the machine or keypad. It was very much like touch-typing. In contrast, for a newbie like me, I couldn't calculate even half as fast as the seniors although I had my eyes glued to the keypad. I did not stay long enough in the two banks to learn to calculate as quickly as the seniors and probably because of that, I also didn't develop right biceps as big as theirs.

The machine was quite noisy during operation. Every punch of a button created a more than audible 'click-clack' sound - 'click' when punching it and 'clack' when releasing it. The cranking of the handle is even noisier - somewhat like the cocking of a rifle. So if you have a group of clerks operating the machines at the same time, the sound generated could certainly rival that of a casino's jackpot room. Coincidentally, the cranking of the adding machine's handle also looked uncannily similar to the wrestling with the 'one-armed-bandit'.

The machine was so noisy that you could never pretend that you were busy calculating while hiding behind a partition because the lack of noises would easily give you away. So don't even think of calculated (pardon the pun) risks like catching up on your sleep that way at the office after watching an early morning World Cup match.

Not long after I left the banks, life was a little easier for those who stayed on. They had a improved version of the adding machine:

It was the electric adding machine. But it was no less noisy. And not blackout-proof.

I couldn't remember how the supermarkets of that era totalled up your purchases. There were certainly no barcode scanners nor electronic registers then even in Cold Storage which was considered upmarket at that time. The supermarkets probably used a manual cash register which looked like a giant adding machine like these:

But most people were poor then and could only afford to buy from cheaper traditional grocers such as the one shown in the photo below. Her 'cash register' was two Milo cans linked by a rope which ran through two overhead pulleys. (One of the cans could be seen at the left side of the photo.) This 'cash register' operated quite like a seesaw - when one went up, the other went down. The 'closing of the cash register' was achieved by leaving both cans at mid-height, just like the one in the photo.

Such grocers made use of another type of calculator:

The abacus.


Lam Chun See said...

Thanks for a very informative a well researched article.

peter said...

How did you apply for a job Vicotr?

I heard (in my time) that employers stated "Handwritten" to mean you literally write using a fountain pen and a piece of paper. Seems in this way, they could analyze for your character.

When I applied for a job, I used my father's manual typewrite (I got a photo but not sure how to upload to your blog). In those days, we never had A4 size paper. A4 size was a "new thing". The paper was slightly longer than A4 but shorter on the width than an A4. You rolled in the paper first and then banged the keys. If you make a mistake, you used an eraser to correct the mistake. If your typewriter was the advanced type, like the IBM Selectric (the first electric typewriter) with the golf ball printhead, then no porblem because it had those self-correcting fetaure. You backspaced and then "insert on" the correcting key and type over - the mistake is "erased".

In my case, my manul typewrite was using a two tone ribbon (black on top and red at the bottom). Each time I made a mistake, I threw the paper into the waster paper basket. In no time I must have thrown about 10 sheets for 1 correct sheet. Still remembered that I had to "plan" my applictaion by writing first and then banging the keys. Still one careless mistrake of hitting the worng key, you threw away the paper.

When word porcessors arrived in Singapore in 1979, it should have got a warm reception but unfortunately the price was S$50,000 for a terminal. And the company that sold it was WANG COmputers, my first employer. IBM Seletric was priced at S$3-4K then.

So like my friend said, our grandfather's generation had to suffer but they invented the word processor. In my generation we invented the PC. So what will the next generation of today's kids invent?

Alex said...

In 1970, for 2 months during vacation, I was doing my "industrial attachment" with a small local bank. I remembered that we actually went to the "clearing house" twice a day to exchange cheques and the process is quite an eye opener. We went to the clearing house with cheques drawn on all other banks which were presented to our account holders and exchange for cheques drawn on us by our account holders. (If this is the correct way to present the situation).

One of the old machine we used was a certain adding machine made in China (Shanghai)under the brand of "Flying Fish" the numbers were digital display under windows, and there is a handle for you to crank. If you need to add the same amount 5 times, you crank the handle 5 rounds. There is even a complex model that can do several calculations at the same time.

I wonder have anyone seen or used them, please correct me if the descriptions were inaccurate.

Chris said...

So full of details and technicalities, Victor. As usual.

But thanks, yes it was informative. I've never seen an "adding machine". They're like antique now, I guess. Like you. Hahahaha.

Thanks for clearing the web. :P

alex said...

Just an update on the adding machine, I believe it was known as a "Rotary/Barrel calculator", and an example of the Flying Fish calculator can be seen in the following site.


Lam Chun See said...

Hey Peter, Noticed that our friend titled his blog (1) meeaning there are more episodes to come. Maybe he will touch on type writer and word processors soon which means you have jumped the gun.

Victor said...

Ya lor, you all no fun one. Pre-empted everything that I wanted to do. Wanted to talk about checkwriter but Alex covered it. Wanted to talk about typewriter but Peter elaborated so much already.

Hey, but that's no problem for me. I always blog from my own perspective. Thanks for all your invaluable comments.

Initially I wanted to describe all 3 items in 1 post but after writing about just 1 item, the article was already so long. So I said better not. I don't want Chris to fall asleep at his PC reading my blog.

fr said...

I think there was a small hand-held adding 'machine' with several columns of numbers and you use a small metal rod to move up and down the columns... good for adding marks you scored for your exams...can't recall much and no pics..

Anonymous said...

i still got the adder machine (electric one i think) plus the abuscus as well

Martina said...

I complained about the meagre remueration I received as a bank clerk in the late.