Monthly Archives: August 2017

A short history of the office



File 20170811 1202 9p7a0j
In the seventeenth century lawyers, civil servants and other new professionals began to work from offices in Amsterdam, London and Paris.
British Museum/Flickr

Agustin Chevez, Swinburne University of Technology and DJ Huppatz, Swinburne University of Technology

For centuries people have been getting up, joining a daily commute or retreating to a room, to work. The office has become inseparable from work.

Its history illustrates not only how our work has changed but also how work’s physical spaces respond to cultural, technological and social forces.

The origins of the modern office lie with large-scale organisations such as governments, trading companies and religious orders that required written records or documentation. Medieval monks, for example, worked in quiet spaces designed specifically for sedentary activities such as copying and studying manuscripts. As depicted in Botticelli’s St Augustine in His Cell, these early “workstations” comprised a desk, chair and storage shelves.

Sandro Botticelli St Augustin dans son cabinet de travail or St Augustine at Work.
Wikipedia Commons

Another of Botticelli’s paintings of St Augustine at work is now in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. This building was originally constructed as the central administrative building of the Medici mercantile empire in 1560.

It was an early version of the modern corporate office. It was both a workplace and a visible statement of prestige and power.

But such spaces were rare in medieval times, as most people worked from home. In Home: The Short History of an Idea, Witold Rybczynski argues that the seventeenth century represented a turning point.

Lawyers, civil servants and other new professionals began to work from offices in Amsterdam, London and Paris. This led to a cultural distinction between the office, associated with work, and the home, associated with comfort, privacy and intimacy.

Despite these early offices, working from home continued. In the nineteenth century, banking dynasties such as the Rothschilds and Barings operated from luxurious homes so as to make clients feel at ease. And, even after the office was well established in the 1960s, Hugh Hefner famously ran his Playboy empire from a giant circular bed in a bedroom of his Chicago apartment.

A police station office in the 1970s.
Dave Conner/Flickr, CC BY

But these were exceptions to the general rule. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, increasingly specialised office designs – from the office towers of Chicago and New York to the post-war suburban corporate campuses – reinforced a distinction between work and home.

Managing the office

Various management theories also had a profound impact on the office. As Gideon Haigh put it in The Office: A Hardworking History, the office was “an activity long before it was a place”.

Work was shaped by social and cultural expectations even before the modern office existed. Monasteries, for example, introduced timekeeping that imposed strict discipline on monks’ daily routines.

Later, modern theorists understood the office as a factory-like environment. Inspired by Frank Gilbreth’s time-motion studies of bricklayers and Fredrick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, William Henry Leffingwell’s 1917 book, Scientific Office Management, depicted work as a series of tasks that could be rationalised, standardised and scientifically calculated into an efficient production regime. Even his concessions to the office environment, such as flowers, were intended to increase productivity.

Technology in the office

Changes in technology also influenced the office. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Morse’s telegraph, Bell’s telephone and Edison’s dictating machine, revolutionised both concepts of work and office design. Telecommunications meant offices could be separate from factories and warehouses, separating white and blue collar workers. Ironically, while these new technologies suggested the possibility of a distributed workforce, in practice, American offices in particular became more centralised.

IBM Selectric typewriter marked a change in office technology.
Christine Mahler/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

In 1964, when IBM introduced a magnetic-card recording device into a Selectric typewriter, the future of the office, and our expectations of it, changed forever. This early word processor could store information, it was the start of computer-based work and early fears of a jobless society due to automation.

Now digital maturity seems to be signalling the end of the office. With online connectivity, more people could potentially work from home.

But some of the same organisations that promoted and enabled the idea of work “anywhere, anytime” – Yahoo and IBM, for example – have cancelled work from home policies to bring employees back to bricks and mortar offices.

Why return to the office?

Anthropological research on how we interact with each other and how physical proximity increases interactions highlights the importance of being together in a physical space. The office is an important factor in communicating the necessary cues of leadership, not to mention enabling collaboration and communication.

Although employers might be calling their employees back to the physical space of the office again, its boundaries are changing. For example, recent “chip parties”, celebrate employees getting a radio-frequency identification implant that enables employers to monitor their employees. In the future, the office may be embedded under our skin.

The ConversationWhile this might seem strange to us , it’s probably just as strange as the idea of making multiple people sit in cubicles to work would have seemed to a fifteenth-century craftsman. The office of the future may be as familiar as home, or even our neighbour’s kitchen table, but only time will tell.

Agustin Chevez, Adjunct Research Fellow, Centre For Design Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology and DJ Huppatz, Senior Lecturer, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: August 13



Today in History: August 12



Today in History: August 11



Today in History: August 10



Powerful and ignored: the history of the electric drill in Australia


Tom Lee, University of Technology Sydney and Berto Pandolfo, University of Technology Sydney

Portable electric drills didn’t always look like oversized handguns.

Before Alonzo G. Decker and Samuel D. Black intervened in the 1910s, the machines typically required the use of both hands. The two men, founders of the eponymous American company Black & Decker, developed a portable electric drill that incorporated a pistol grip and trigger switch, apparently inspired by Samuel Colt’s pistol.

We are documenting a collection of more than 50 portable electric drills made roughly between 1930 and 1980.

Seen as part of a history of technology, they have a lot to teach us about function and form, masculine values and the history of Australian craft.


Read more: Reengineering elevators could transform 21st-century cities


The collection also represents an important chapter in Australian manufacturing, and includes drills produced by local companies such as Sher, KBC and Lightburn that have since disappeared. It also features models made by Black & Decker, which once had manufacturing operations in Australia.

The CP2 manufactured by Black & Decker in Croydon, Victoria. There is evidence of this model being on the market from 1963 to 1966, although we suspect it was available earlier and for much longer.
Berto Pandolfo, Author provided

Design historians and collectors have paid little attention to the electric drill. It’s seen as an object of work, unlike domestic items such as the tea kettle, which can be statements of taste and luxury.

But the device deserves our attention. It’s considered the first portable electric power tool, and arguably helped to democratise the industry, putting construction in the hands of everyone from labourers to hobbyists.

The electric drill in Australia

Australia once played a significant role in producing the portable electric drill.

Ken Bowes & Co. Ltd, known as KBC, was a South Australian manufacturing company founded in 1936. Although it produced domestic appliances such as the bean slicer, die casting of military components such as ammunition parts (shell and bomb noses) and tank attack guns kept the company busy during World War II.

It appears that KBC entered the hardware market in 1948 with its first portable electric drill, designed for the cabinet maker and general handyman. The body of the drill was made from die-cast zinc alloy and it had a unique removable front plate on the handle to allow the user easy access to the connection terminals.

KBC drill and label (note the lack of integration between handle and body), circa 1950s.
Berto Pandolfo, Author provided

In 1956, Black & Decker established an Australian manufacturing plant in Croydon, Victoria, where drills such as the CP2 were manufactured.

Between 1960 and 1982, many power tool brands had a media presence. KBC sponsored a radio program called, appropriately enough, That’s The Drill. Wolf power tools were awarded as prizes on the television program Pick-A-Box.

Black & Decker ran advertisements that appeared during popular television programs and used endorsements by sporting celebrities such as cricketer Dennis Lillee.

While the popularity of portable power drills has endured, the manufacture of these objects in Australia more or less vanished by the end of the 20th century.

Why we value some objects and not others

The portable electric drill has been poorly documented by designers, historians and museums.

Obvious repositories for their collection, such as museums of technology or innovation, are increasingly challenged by space and funding pressures. Apart from a few token examples, many everyday objects have not managed to establish a museum presence.

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney holds at least two vintage portable electric drills: one is a Desouthers, made in England, and another drill of unknown origin. Museums Victoria has one example of a Black & Decker electric drill from the 1960s in its digital archive.

The crude utility of the portable drill is part of the reason why it has escaped much academic scrutiny.

The Black and Decker U-500 drill. The first drill to be completely manufactured in Australia at the Crodyon factory in Victoria.
Berto Pandolfo, Author provided

Design studies and collections tend to focus on luxury objects such as Ferrari sports cars and Rolex wristwatches. Even kitchen and home appliances get more attention, especially those designs associated with high-end companies such as Alessi and designers such as Dieter Rams and Jasper Morrison.

By contrast, the electric drill remains a B-grade object. It is a stock weapon in horror films, although even there it lacks the status reserved for the more sublimely threatening implements of violence such as swords, spears and guns.

The case for the drill

Hard yakka and aesthetics have not typically been happy bedfellows. However, labour and its associated objects can provide a compelling look at contemporary life.

Like the laptop computer, the shape of which is tied to the “macho mystique” of the briefcase, the pistol form of the portable drill seems to be significantly influenced by ideas of power and masculinity.

The symbolic association with the pistol is also practical, and would have no doubt eased the burden for those early users struggling with the device’s weight.


Read More: Apple’s goodbye to the MP3 player reminds us why the iPod became an instant classic


A recent turn towards the everyday as a site for design anthropology will hopefully shift focus towards inconspicuous yet important technologies like portable electric drills.

These objects are part of a rich history that will be forgotten if institutions focus exclusively on luxury items, big name designers and cultures of display and ornament.

The ConversationEven our most anonymous objects are sources of cultural expression, and they should not be overlooked.

Tom Lee, Lecturer, Faculty of Design and Architecture Building, University of Technology Sydney and Berto Pandolfo, Director Industrial Design, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: August 9



Today in History: August 8



Living blanket, water diviner, wild pet: a cultural history of the dingo



File 20170719 13561 7m29x5
A watercolour of a dingo, pre-1793, from John Hunter’s drawing books.
By permission of The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London.

Justine M. Philip, University of New England

In traditional Aboriginal society, women travelled with canine companions draped around their waists like garments of clothing. Dingoes played an important role in the protection and mobility of the women and children, and are believed to have greatly extended women’s contribution to the traditional economy and food supply.

Wongapitcha women carrying dogs which they hold across their backs to enjoy the warmth of the animals’ bodies,
Photo and caption: Herbert Basedow, 1924. Glass plate negative, by permission of the NMG Macintosh collection, J. L. Shellshear Museum, University of Sydney.

Dingo pups were taken from the wild when very young. The pups were a highly valued ritual food source, while others were adopted into human society. They grew up in the company of women and children, providing an effective hunting aid, a living blanket and guarding against intruders.

Nursing young dingo pups was also deeply embedded in traditional customs. Interspecies breastfeeding of mammalian young was common in most human societies pre-industrialisation, historically providing the only safe way to ensure the survival of motherless mammalian young. Technological advances in milk pasteurisation made artificial feeding a viable alternative by the late 1800s.

Cohabitation with human society represented a transient phase of the dingo’s lifecycle: the pups generally returned to the wild once mature (at one or two years of age) to breed. As such, dingoes maintained the dual roles of human companion and top-order predator – retaining their independent and essentially wild nature over thousands of years.


Further reading: Dingoes do bark: why most dingo facts you think you know are wrong


Post-colonisation, it became too dangerous to keep the semi-wild canines in the Aboriginal camps. Dingoes were targeted for eradication as livestock holdings spread across the country. Their removal would have had a profound impact on the women, resulting in a great loss of traditional knowledge and status.

DNA studies estimate that the dingo arrived on the Australian continent between 4,700 and 18,000 years ago, representing perhaps the earliest example of human-assisted oceanic migration. They were adopted into Aboriginal society, maintaining a symbiotic partnership that lasted thousands of years, and for this reason have been celebrated as a cultural keystone species.

The dingo’s ability to locate water above and below ground was perhaps its most indispensable skill. Written records, artworks and photographs in museum archives reveal dingo water knowledge as recorded by European explorers. Records reveal a number of accounts of wild/semi-wild dingoes leading Europeans to lifesaving water springs.

In Australian cartography, a “Dingo Soak” refers to a waterhole dug by a mythical or live canine. There are other freshwater landmarks across the continent – “Dingo Springs”, “Dingo Rock”, “Dingo Gap”.

In Aboriginal mythology, the travels of ancestral dingoes map out songlines, graphemic maps tracing pathways across the continent from one water source to the next. Their stories tell of the formation of mountains, waterholes and star constellations. In some accounts, dingoes emerged from the ground as rainbows; in others they dug the waterholes and made waterfalls as they travelled through the landscape.

Ethnographic evidence

Human-dingo heritage is preserved in ethnographic collections in Paris, London and Washington DC. Artefacts include talismans and ornaments made of canine teeth, bones and fur; rain incarnations and love charms. Funerary containers were decorated with dingo teeth, providing protection for the spirit in the afterlife.

In one portrait from the Smithsonian collection, an Aboriginal woman wears a dingo tail headdress – a talisman believed to hold great power and worn by warriors going to battle.

Woman with headdress looking to the side, 1870-1873 by John William Lindt, albumen print 20 x 15cm.
Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives USNM INV 04926900

The Smithsonian Institutional Archives also reveal a wealth of information about the post-colonial social history of the dingo. Many semi-wild dingoes were kept in early Euro-Australian settlements, then transported live to England, France and later to America as diplomatic gifts or exotic animal displays.

It was noted that the dingoes remained essentially wild despite numerous attempts to domesticate them – they failed to respond to any amount of discipline, kindness, bribery or coercion. Despite 230 years of surviving on the fringes of human settlements, travelling in menageries and circus troupes, living in zoos and semi-domestic arrangements, this remains true today. The dingo has retained its independent character and irreversible prey drive.

However, they did breed quite well in captivity and zoos often had excess pups to trade. Occasionally these pups went to private homes. Affectionate and tractable when young, eventually their carnivorous nature would get the better of them. The majority soon ended up in difficult circumstances and back in the hands of officials.

Dingo pup, 1930. Popular official guide to the New York zoological park.
Zoo Ephemera collection, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Library.

A Roosevelt connection

The Smithsonian holds records of the first live dingoes to arrive in Washington DC in 1901, a gift from the US consul to New South Wales. A number of pups were later born at the National Zoo and documented in the daybooks and records of births, deaths, sales and exchange.

One file contains a curious letter, offering a home to one of the dingo pups on display, dated May 14 1908. The request for the pup was signed by Theodore Roosevelt junior. At the time, Theodore’s father was in office as the 26th president of the United States, and the Roosevelt family were in residence at the White House.


Further reading: A wolf in dog’s clothing? Why dingoes may not be Australian wildlife’s saviours


The Roosevelt children were well known for their eclectic pet collection. Many arrived as diplomatic gifts and ended up at the National Zoo, or were traded through the local Schmid’s Bird and Pet Animal Emporium at 712 12th Street NW. The list included snakes (which ended up, uninvited, in the Oval Office) and a pig, smuggled into the presidential residence under the care of a young Quentin Roosevelt.

The pig, once discovered, ended up in Schmid’s Emporium for sale under a sign stating: “this pig slept last night in the White House”. No records have surfaced about the Roosevelts’ dingo. However, five months later – around the time that the pup would have been challenging all boundaries of domestication – a sale notice appeared in The Washington Post, dated October 16 1908, under: DOGS, PETS, ETC.
“JUST RECEIVED, Dingo, Australian wild dog … SCHMID’S BIRD STORE 712 12TH.”

Baudin’s dingoes

The first live exhibit of dingoes in an international display appeared in the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1803. The pair, a male and female, had been collected by Captain Nicholas Baudin in Port Jackson, and transported to France on Le Naturalist in the care of François Péron (zoologist) and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (artist).

Frederick Cuvier, naturalist and zookeeper, was assigned to care for the dingoes in Paris. In 1924, he wrote:

This dog, who was female, was about eighteen months when she arrived in Europe. She lived in freedom in the vessel where she was embarked, and despite the corrections inflicted on her, as well as a young male that died as a result of a punishment too harsh, she continued to evade punishment and consume all that suited her appetite.

The female lived for seven years in the gardens, the male survived just two months after arrival.

Eventually the bodies of both were transferred to the stores of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle and preserved for perpetuity. Notes in the museum state that early on in the voyage of Le Naturalist, before departing King Island for France, the male dingo had “been too brutally castrated because of his independent character” and these injuries eventually killed him.

The taxidermy specimens remain in the vaults of the museum today.

NASA’s dingo encounter

In 2006, a team of NASA scientists from the Smithsonian’s Centre for Earth and Planetary Studies were in Australia’s Simpson Desert studying the formation of parallel desert dunes similar to those found on Mars.

Senior scientist Ted Maxwell took a photo of a wild dingo casually observing the scientists while they were staking out a dune on the Colson Track. Maxwell recorded the co-ordinates of their location, noting that it was a 60-kilometre journey across the desert to Dalhousie Springs, the nearest known permanent water source. The dingo appears completely at ease.

A dingo inspects scientists’ work during their expedition in the Simpson Desert, Australia. May, 2006.
Ted Maxwell, Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.

Another reference to a dingo appears in the Smithsonian records in 2014, this time as the NASA Curiosity Rover crossed the Martian landscape. The vehicle passed an ancient dried freshwater lake on Mars, before travelling up through “Dingo Gap” in the sand dunes.

The NASA scientists had mapped the surface of Mars into quadrangles, and named the locations after sites on Earth with a similar ancient geology or rock formations. Dingo Gap is named after a location near the remote Kimberly quadrangle in Western Australia.

The ConversationSo, in contemporary celestial narrative, a valley on the Martian landscape is named after the Australian wild dog, the dingo, that thrived for thousands of years in one of the most extreme environments on Earth.

Justine M. Philip, Doctor of Philosophy, Ecosystem Management, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: August 6



%d bloggers like this: