A staple of radio phone-ins is to invite listeners to share their stories about funny things they found when moving into a new property.
There are some tales that everyone can share, such as front doors fitted with a letterbox so small that you’d struggle to fit a postcard through without having to fold it in half. There are others that surprise or repulse, such as embalmed cats found behind walls and, in one revolting case, a man who discovered that the previous owner collected dead spiders in paper bags and left them stacked up in the cloakroom under the stairs.
With the exception of those who designed and built their own homes, surely everyone must at one point have looked around at the polystyrene ceiling tiles, dado rails, dusty pelmets and plastic chandeliers and wonder what kind of shit was going through the heads of the mentalists who used to live there.
The previous owners of my last house bricked up the door between the tiny kitchen and the dining room for no apparent reason. So instead of serving meals directly from the kitchen to the dining table, I’d shout, “dinner’s ready!”, pick up the plates... and step into the hallway.
I find myself making similar discoveries with respect to office machines at other people’s workplaces. When did they buy this crazy stuff? Are the people who used it still alive? And, oh lordy, why is this junk still here?
Long-time readers of my old Register column may remember that 10 years ago I acquired responsibility for 2,000 square feet of office space near London’s trendy Tech City area of Shoreditch.
I can assure you that “trendy” was not the word that came to mind the first day I stepped into this dismal den of obliquity. The walls and ceiling had been painted muddy green some time before I was born. All the furniture dated from the 1950s, all of it brown. At some point in the 1970s, cheap carpet had been glued directly onto what must at the time have been unfashionable parquet wooden floor.
After seven months of scrimping, I finally saved up enough money to get it redecorated. This in turn forced me not just to box up day-to-day stuff but also to investigate what was in the faded archive boxes, on dust-caked shelves and inside the many broken filing cabinets that litter the place.
My Tech City office space turned out to be a hoarder’s shrine to late 20th century clerical work. Dare you join me, dear reader, as we step back in time to visit the kerayzee world of yellowed paper records and obsolete machinery?
The following happy snap shows the part-time office assistant’s desk. Yes, you are looking at an Apple eMac, an electric typewriter and a red ledger book.
With the exception of the freelance kit I would yomp in with every day in my backpack, the photo shows the most up-to-date kit to be found anywhere on the entire floor. The typewriter, by the way, was used for addressing envelopes. Don’t knock the eMac either: I laid out a tabloid newspaper on one of those for almost a year. Actually, feel free to knock it: the eMac’s blurry, flickery display all but blinded me, the bastard.
This ought to have rung alarm bells in my thick head. Whatever I was to find elsewhere in the office was likely to pre-date the eMac. As it turned out, some of it pre-dated the pencil.
As I began clearing stuff up for the decorators, I came across several metal cases in “stone white” with chunky hinged carry handles. For any youngsters reading this, “stone white” was a highly fashionable colour for electronic durables in the early era of personal computers. These days we use the more modern term “yellow”.
What the heck was that? After fumbling with the lock – there was no key so I broke in with a gentle tug – it fell open to reveal... a... database archive of some kind? It must have been pretty poorly developed because there was no clickable index and searching looked like it would have been a nightmare.
Compare it to the photo below of the much more comprehensive contacts database I discovered. We had lots of these and, though they didn’t have locks, they were difficult little buggers to open what with all the rust. I felt sure the Data Protection Registrar would have approved of this security feature. I used a screwdriver to prise the drawer free for this photo. Perhaps the DPR won’t approve after all.
Curiously enough, I found a dusty shelf stacked with half a dozen untouched Rolodexes, one still sealed in its retail box. Clearly they were considered too space-age for use in this particular office.
When I came across the filthy old case shown in the photo here, I got quite excited because it reminded me of a 1960s portable record player my parents used to own.
My initial disappointment upon opening it turned to joy as I discovered what I think is Apple’s first laptop. The mains lead is missing but there must be some latent battery power because I booted it up and the built-in printer still works. It did not, however, tell me that it was glad to be out of its bag and I noted that only one font had been installed.
Under a crusty plastic dusty cover – judging from its condition, I can only assume it was designed to keep dust inside – I chanced upon a mid-Elizabethan desktop PC unusually fashioned in “mushroom grey” – the 1980s term for “dirt”. I’m pretty sure I taught myself Basic on one of these and it’s still pretty good at Ascii art but the thumping spacebar action makes the office windows rattle.
The anti-dust cover over the type bars was missing but I always thought those ionising gadgets were a waste of money anyway.
As I continued to search the office, I discovered a dozen more similar machines, mostly shut away in metal cabinets. That revealed a great deal of foresight on the part of my predecessor: it would have been a shame to succumb to one of the many notorious typewriter ram-raids we regularly read about on the webanets. I’m not sure how they would have reversed the van up three flightrs of stairs but you can’t be too careful when it comes to security.
Also uncovered were 20 broken push-button phones, three dial phones with real ringing bells inside them, and a decommissioned Royal Mail franking machine accompanied by an engineer’s report stating that the office manager had chosen to keep the device after its decommissioning.
Hmm, strange bloke. Why would you keep hold of an office machine that doesn’t work? Anyone in their right mind would dispose of it immediately. That’s precisely what you or I would do. It’s not as if people like us hang on to broken or obsolete electronics unnecessarily, thereby cluttering up our working space with useless shit in this day and age, is it?
More disconcertingly, I stumbled upon a number of articles hinting at the private working lives of an earlier generation. One filing cabinet drawer contained a pillow and the one below it was stuffed with used bedding. Did office workers of the 1980s regularly camp out at their places of employment?
Still, nothing would prepare me for what I found in the drawer at the bottom.
Not one but a whole sack of rubber gas masks, condition as-new. I knew my predecessors were magazine publishers but heck, even I knew this wasn’t standard office equipment... unless I’d been damn lucky in my choice of employers.
Yet it does go some way to explaining why we had a mysterious black-painted cast-iron safe weighing a million tons in the corner. I queried my predecessor several times as to its contents but I got a different evasive response each time, and when I asked if there was a key, he told me, enigmatically: “Yes, there is a key.”
I had planned to borrow the pillows and bedding to stay there overnight to keep watch on the safe, and hopefully catch the gimp as he emerged. Better still, maybe the rest of the band would turn up and entertain me with a skiffle next to the oil barrels.
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He did eventually secure the key for the cast-iron safe and took a look inside. It contained two copies of 1980s soft-porn magazine Razzle. Thank goodness, he thought: it was a normal publishing office after all.
Well a few jobs back, I worked with a telecoms manager who had all the manuals for the Avaya on shelves in the comms room. This was still there even after the system had been upgraded at least 3 times.
They were finally removed about 5 years later when someone decided that they were probably a fire hazard…
I remember seeing one of those eMacs back then. First time I'd fiddled with an Apple thingie since that Macintosh in the mid 80s.
Didn't they come with the most un-ergonomic mouse ever conceived?
I'd Bing the answer, but I keep getting links to some wildebeest preservation society.