Low-Tech to High-Tech – History of Office Supplies

In a world of hi-tech gear, office supplies are some of the simplest – and perhaps mundane– devices known to man – and yet, we would be unable to reach a satisfactory level of productivity without them. Upon closer inspection, office supplies have an untold history that’s both fascinating and entertaining.


Before there were calculators, there was the slide ruler. In 1614, John Napier discovered the logarithm which enabled people to perform multiplications and division by addition and subtraction. While a great time saver, it still required quite a bit of work to find the answer. William Oughtred eventually simplified the process, but for many the slide rule remained a challenge. In fact, a 1960 Pickett manual said: “When people have difficulty in learning to use a slide rule, usually it is not because the instrument is difficult to use. The reason is likely to be that they don’t understand the mathematics on which the instrument is based.

Thankfully, William Seward Burroughs invented the first practical adding and listing machine. The first machine required a special knack in pulling the handle to execute the calculation correctly. Differing sums, therefore, were not uncommon for novice users who pulled the handle with varying degrees of vigor. With some tweaking on his invention, Burroughs incorporated an a hydraulic device that enabled the machine to operate properly regardless of the manner in which the handle might be pulled.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a revolution in calculating machines was taking place as electronics for calculators was at its cutting edge of research. Developing from large, expensive machines to small, inexpensive, electronic devices, the calculator became the precursor to the mircroprocessor – the precursor to the computer.

Post-It Notes

Church choir member Arthur Fry had a conundrum. Frustrated that his bookmarks kept falling out of his hymnal, he came up with the idea of using a reusable adhesive developed in 1968 by 3M colleague, Dr. Spencer Silver. Silver had promoted his invention within the company for years through seminars, but without much success. After attending one of Silver’s seminars, Fry realized he could use the adhesive to anchor his bookmarks. Fry also realized his “bookmark” had other practical uses for communication and organization.

3M Corporation crafted the name Post-It for Fry’s bookmarks and began production in the late 1970s for commercial use. Initially, the idea was slow to catch on, but once consumers tried the product, the Post-It took off.

The Office

Based on the Latin word “officium,” which meant not only duty (an important concept for those bureaucratic, no-fun Romans) but also a formal position such as a magistrature.

The invention of the modern cubicle, meanwhile, is one of those ironic stories with which the history of technology is rife. (Television was originally intended as an educational tool, for example.) Colorado designer Robert Propst, working for Herman Miller, Inc, developed the cubicle as part of a 1965 “Action Office” prototype. It seems Propst was trying to liven up workplace design.



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