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A Very Brief History of the Computer in the Workplace

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A staggering amount of us works with computers – so much so that saying somebody ‘does something with computers’ is a popular shorthand for generic modern toil. Yet few of us stop to consider how this situation might have arisen. What was the genesis of this relationship, this symbiotic existence with the machine? In Isaac Asimov’s seminal ontological sci-fi short The Last Question, he envisioned a world in which humanity slowly merged with computers, eventually forming a singular, omnipotent organism. We might not be there quite yet, but we are indeed interconnected through technology far more than ever before.

It is worth tracking back and examining a timeline of our working relationship with computers. What follows is a rather brief history, but one that will hopefully provoke some thoughts about how we use technology in our everyday lives.

If you are running a business, you’ll know that keeping a networked IT system running can be time-consuming and hard, but you’ll also know that it is an essential task. Third-party IT support companies are always in demand to help out with this specialist labor. 

Tea, Anyone?

The first computers for commonplace office work came from a rather unlikely source – British tea sellers Lyons. The Lyons Electronic O²ffice (or LEO, for short) was the first computer to run commercial business applications in 1951. Its inventor, John Simmons, crafted the vast machine in order to cut down the time office workers spent undertaking clerical duties. The computer built on technology invented during the Second World War. 

Words, Word and the World

Word processing has completely altered the way in which we record and share information at work. You probably have a word tab open right now! Ulrich Steinhilper, a former Nazi pilot, suggested the idea of a computer-based word processor to IBM all the way back in 1951, but it wasn’t until the advent of the desktop computer in the 1970s that every office worker started tapping away like their hearts depended on it. 

The Spreadsheet

Don’t you just love spreadsheets? No? Well, actually, the spreadsheet has made office work far simpler than it once was. Where once calculations had to be painstakingly checked and checked again, we now have great confidence in the mathematical surety of our computers. 

The spreadsheet was thought up by Dan Bricklin and Don Frankston in the late 1970s. They marketed their new idea as the VisiCalc and sold a bucketload of licenses. 

Video Conferencing

Where is the workplace? This question is even more ambiguous than ever in the age of coronavirus. Video-conferencing software like Zoom has revolutionized the way we work. Meetings can now be held without any of the participants being in the same country, which may be wildly useful in the future if you want to pretend that you aren’t in Barbados. Video conferencing has allowed the home to become the workplace for more and more of us. Whether this has been for the better or worse we have yet to discover. 

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