From An Adding Machine To An Ipad

Mr. Laferty was 5’ 6”, shaped like a pear and had a bad comb-over; he was my father’s bookkeeper and he and his adding machine fascinated me. His fingers would fly over the keys as he would enter numbers; after every entry, he would pull the manual handle, the roll of paper would advance and he would enter the next set of numbers. Like a machine, he would not stop until an entire column had been entered; then he would pull the adding machine tape close—he never tore the tape; he saved, reversed, re-rolled and used it again—check his numbers and start again. After at first refusing to do so, he would relent to my begging and let me pull the adding machine crank; that was my first experience with an office machine.

After graduating from college, I began work in my father’s office. I had only been there a few days when the general manager asked me to check an estimate. I began to check the math by hand: multiplying, adding, totaling columns. He laughed at my efforts and asked why I didn’t use the comptometer. I had no idea what it was, much less how it operated but I learned and was fascinated by the weird machine.

The comptometer was the size of an IBM Selectric typewriter—another ancient and rare piece of office equipment—and weighed about as much as a Volkswagen Beetle. It had two keyboards and a row of small windows in which the calculations appeared. When using the machine to multiply or divide, you could hear the internal mechanisms clanking and banging for what seemed to be an eternity before miraculously the results would appear. I loved that machine and thought it to be a miracle of technology until we purchased our first electronic calculator.

Our first calculator was the size of a telephone, had no printer and would die from a surge of electricity from a storm 30 miles away. At first my father and I would enter a calculation, obtain and then check the results by hand. For a mathematically challenged college history major, that it could instantaneously calculate the square root of a number was a miracle and I would enter number after number watching it do so. I was satisfied with the calculator and its successors until I discovered computers.

When drinking a beer with a guy I had played against in a racquetball tournament, I asked what he did for a living. He responded that he owned a company that developed and sold small business accounting software. Small business software: you had to be kidding! To run software, you would have to own a computer and that was beyond the means of any but large businesses. Soon afterwards, we owned our first computer.

It was like royalty visiting when they delivered our brand new TRS 80—Tandy Radio Shack—computer. We had purchased the top of the line: 64k of memory, a 13” black and white monitor and an expansion bay, with three 5 1/4” floppy drives. It was so cutting edge that an industry trade magazine detailed a reporter to visit us to take pictures and gather information for a feature story. Our accounting was automated and with the advent Visicalc, the first spreadsheet program, so was our estimating. I thought it was advanced as technology could ever get, until last week my wife gave me an Ipad.

The Ipad is amazing.  The size of a small notepad, it is a personal entertainment and business center. I can download and read books and while doing so listen to my favorite music; when I tire of reading, I can play a game, check email, write a letter or surf the internet. It doesn’t require wires, external power or speakers; it represents a miraculous advance in technology.

As I downloaded applications to my new Ipad I thought about Mr. Laferty and all the advances in technology that have occurred since he would grudgingly let me pull the hand crank on his adding machine. I thought how our lives have been changed by those advances.

If today’s technology had been available 25 years ago, I might still be in the building business. Tasks, such as producing shop drawings, that were onerous and time consuming then, now would only take minutes to complete. Communications with customers, employees and vendors would be seamless and immediate; in many ways business is easier now: but is it better?

Perhaps and perhaps not: when your are always in touch, there’s a tendency towards making precipitous rather than well-considered decisions. With the urgency of instant connectivity, without clear thinking, communications can reduce productivity, occasion mistakes and damage relationships. In addition to the negatives that can occur in business, technology also affects personal relationships.

Tablet computers, smart phones, video games allow for entertainment self-sufficiency; we don’t need others to distract us from boredom. However, boredom is important: if our minds are always externally occupied, when is there time for creativity and problem solving? Not just creativity, I fear the effects of technology on relationships: lending to isolation rather than socialization.

It’s been an amazing journey with technology: from watching a comptometer chugging away to sitting on my back porch surfing the web. Technology begets technology; so, advancements are going to come fast and I cannot imagine what tomorrow will bring. I do know that we must not become so enraptured with tools that we lose touch with each other.


As industrial technology advances and enlarges, and in the process assumes greater social, economic, and political force, it carries people away from where they belong by history, culture, deeds, association and affection.” – Wendell Berry


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