Getting the Future Wrong: Xerox’s Hardware Solution to Software Problems

In 1965, Xerox made a 14-minute-long video ad for the Xerox 2400 photocopier, and I’ve been tickled by it ever since I first saw it years ago. Not only does the ad, titled “What’s the Difference?” illustrate how many steps the Xerox 2400 can eliminate from the process of short-run duplication,

The Xerox 2400 reduces the steps in the short-run duplication process from seven to two.

it also notes that since xerography is a dry process, as the name suggests, it keeps printers’ and office workers’ hands clean.

No more stained fingers, no more smudged documents.

Even better, with just a handful of simple techniques,

Just use overlays to add, delete, and substitute.

the Xerox 2400 not only duplicates documents but also facilitates the creation of new ones. The video devotes a good three minutes to demonstrating how this will revolutionize the sales order and invoicing system, the purchase order system, and production order system.

The ad closes by noting that the Xerox 2400 is so easy to use that not just women, but even children can do it.

In her book, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz conveys the contemporary appeal of such advertisements, which seem so strange to us today. Continue reading “Getting the Future Wrong: Xerox’s Hardware Solution to Software Problems”

Antoinette Tuff

You should know the name Antoinette Tuff. She is, to date, the only person ever to have deterred an armed man from opening fire on a US school.

In August 2013, Tuff was the bookkeeper at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy outside of Atlanta. A parent who was leaving the school held the door for a young man to enter, not knowing that the man was armed with an AK-47 and over 500 rounds of ammunition. Tuff called 911, then spent 25 minutes talking the gunman down. He surrendered to police, and no one was injured.

Unsurprisingly, Tuff does not credit her success to the cool head of a bookkeeper, but rather to her faith in God and her own radical courage in displaying compassion and emotional vulnerability to the would-be shooter. Read her story here.


Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

Tip Jar

If you find this content useful or interesting, send me a tip.

$1.00

Austin’s Highland Mall as Victor Gruen’s Last Laugh

Oh, Highland Mall, the stuff of my childhood back-to-school shopping dreams. It opened in 1971 and closed officially in 2015, though it had been dead for a while before then. During the 80s, it was the most accessible mall in Austin to my family, who lived in rural isolation to the east of the city. I salivated to be driven 50 miles to shop in that neon-lit concrete bunker, though now I’m much more likely to be found eating ice cream in a green space at The Domain farther north when I visit my home city. Today, the property is owned by Austin Community College and is being transformed into a mixed-use anchor of neighborhood amenities, including not only retail, residential, and park areas, but also computer and chemistry learning and co-working facilities.

Food court at Highland Mall, Bellerophon5685
So who was Victor Gruen? Tom Scott gives a brief introduction to the Austrian architect who conceived of the shopping mall as a way to combat suburban sprawl in the United States, his adopted country–then hated the “bastard offspring” of his idea and developers’ money that resulted. The Highland Mall of my youth was one of those bastard offspring; the Highland Mall of the future is much more what Gruen had in mind.


Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

Tip Jar

If you find this content useful or interesting, send me a tip.

$1.00

Even Your Pocket Change is Telling You to Vote

As citizens of the United States finish polling and wait for the results of their midterm elections, here’s Tom Hockenhull of the British Museum talking about coins that were defaced in the name of voting rights for women. The coin was featured in Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects: “this coin stands for all those who fought for the right to vote.”

May that right always expand and never contract. (You can help make that wish a reality by supporting the Fair Fight PAC and other organizations that defend voting rights in the US.)

The featured image for this post is a copper-colored British coin stamped with the phrase ‘Votes for Women.’ It is housed at the British Museum and photographed by Mike Peel.


Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

Tip Jar

If you find this content useful or interesting, send me a tip.

$1.00

Iron-On Credit Data

Until the 1950s, having credit with a bank or merchant where no one knew you personally was a rare thing, and nothing like the credit card we know today existed.

In 1950, the Diner’s Club issued the first fully general-purpose charge card, and in 1958, the Bank of America issued the first general-purpose credit card (whose balance, unlike that of a charge card, did not have to be paid in full at each statement).

But technologically, these cards still functioned in the same way as the various merchant-specific charge coins, tokens, tags, and cards that had proliferated from the late 19th century through the 1940s–the embossed account number on the card, pressed through carbon transfer paper, facilitated the copying of data, but that data was still transmitted and verified manually.

Enter IBM, the CIA, and a woman named Dorothea Tillia Parry. In 1960, Parry’s husband Forrest was working on an IBM project to attach magnetic data strips to the back of plastic ID cards for CIA officials, and he couldn’t find an adhesive that didn’t warp the magstripe and ruin its data.a broken magnetic strip of the kind used on credit cardsDorothea listened to his problem over their laundry, and she suggested that he use her iron to melt the strip into the plastic. It worked.

The magnetic strip on the back of a new debit card.
The magstripe (and the electronic transmission of transaction data) became the US standard for credit cards in 1969, and the international standard two years later, though carbon impressions at the point of sale persisted for a while longer still. Now embedded microchips are taking over the magstripe’s role, but thanks to Dorothea Parry, it’s hard to imagine returning to a world of analog credit transactions.

Continue reading “Iron-On Credit Data”

Mary Coombs and the Birth of Business Computers

In the early 1950s, one of the UK’s top catering and food manufacturing companies took a sharp left turn into software development and the manufacture and sales of the world’s first business computers.

In 1947, executives of J. Lyons and Co. came away from a meeting with one of the developers of ENIAC convinced that their company would benefit from computerizing its accounting and related operations. They also convinced their board that the quickest way to achieve that was to invest in EDSAC, and then build on its design for their own needs.

In November 1951, the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) took over calculating job valuations for J. Lyons and Co.’s bakery operations. LEO soon took on inventory, invoicing, management reports, payroll, and more–not just for J. Lyons and Co., but for the UK’s meteorological service, Ford UK, and others. In 1954, the company formed LEO Computers Ltd. to handle this new business.

Mary Coombs was part of the LEO programming team from nearly the beginning, and she is recognized as the first woman to program a commercial computer. She developed programs for internal use and as part of the new company’s business services offerings, debugged the work of other programmers, and was in charge of rewriting LEO II programs for LEO III, which used a different language.

Coombs’ career eventually took a path that is all too familiar to many women–with the birth of a disabled child, Coombs cut back her work from full- to part-time. She eventually left the programming field, and her history-making first career, altogether, and became a teacher.

Mary Coombs, a light-skinned person in a pink jacket and white shirt, wearing glasses and a beaded necklace, from the chest up, facing slightly left.
Mary Coombs shares her story with computingheritage

Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

Tip Jar

If you find this content useful or interesting, send me a tip.

$1.00

Denise Schmandt-Besserat and the Accounting Origins of Writing

If literacy is not a divine gift from Thoth, the baboon-faced god of knowledge, then just where did it come from?A rectangular clay table marked with cuneiform.Cuneiform tablet from the Kirkor Minassian collection of the Library of Congress. 2041-2040 BC.

You may already know that cuneiform, which was used from the fourth millennium BC through the second century AD in the Near East, is one of the world’s earliest forms of writing. Did you know that it evolved from one of the world’s oldest accounting systems–counting tokens used in trade?A collection of small clay discs, cones, and pyramids on a piece of red feltTokens from Jarmo, Iraq, 6500 BC. Courtesy Denise Schmandt–Besserat.

If you find the connection between the two hard to see, you’re not alone. It took more than fifty years between the first discovery of cuneiform tablets in the ruins of Uruk (which was also full of counting tokens) for someone to work out that the first impressions of accounts in clay had been made by pressing the counters themselves into the material. The characteristic cuneiform stylus came later.Three small clay discs and three small clay cones with a larger, imprinted clay ball Envelope from Susa, Iran, ca. 3300 BC. Courtesy Denise Schmandt–Besserat. The lenticular disks each stand for a flock, and the cones represent small measures of grain.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat is the French-American archaeologist, professor emerita of Art and Middle Eastern Studies at my alma mater, the University of Texas, who made the connection. I can’t think of a better person to feature here as I fly off to Mississippi to volunteer with the National Forest Service’s Passport in Time archaeology program for a couple of weeks.Denise Schmandt-Besserat, a light-skinned person in black clothing with their head covered, stands in front of a wall holding a wooden perch on which a hooded raptor sits.Denise Schmandt-Besserat with a falcon in Ryadh, Saudi Arabia, 2011.


Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

Tip Jar

If you find this content useful or interesting, send me a tip.

$1.00

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑