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A Blast from My Past: Telex Machine

As I work on my taxes for 2009, I sometimes need to look up a photo from the past year (I make photo images of all my checks that I deposit, rather than making paper copies for my files). I found these photos as I worked. This is a TWX/Telex machine just like one I used 30 years ago.

twxb-450

The first full-time job I had, I started in January or February of 1981. I worked for an appliance parts wholesaler, doing data entry 40 hours a week. Because it was wholesale, a few people did a good variety of jobs. I was very lucky that the office at the time I started, was one big room with desks everywhere. I could hear everyone (purchasing, finance, sales) make telephone calls, decisions, fix problems, make customers happy.

A Fish Out of Water

I came from a background where not only my parents were both educators, but most of my friends’ parents worked in some sort of academic setting. I was not at all familiar with business (although my grandfather and my uncle both owned newspapers in Minnesota, far from my world).

However, somehow I found myself with a secretarial certificate, sort of by accident. I could type, though slowly, but I never looked at my fingers and I typed numbers as well as letters. It was a time when there was little work available in Lansing. I was a bad waitress but I could still make more waiting tables than many of the desk jobs available to me.

It’s All in the Numbers

I pretty much got the wholesaler  job when they asked me to sit at an IBM Selectric typewriter and type the numbers from the phone book. I don’t think they even checked my work. I sat there and typed without looking at my hands. They knew that if I didn’t look, I’d improve with both speed and accuracy.

They needed me to type all day, 40 hours/week. I typed over 4000 invoices a month, plus orders, purchasing, receiving orders into the computer database, and other tasks. It was a cleaner job than waiting tables, with more regular hours. I entered the 8-5 workforce.

Pre-DOS/PC Computing

At this job, we had a Xerox Diablo computer. This preceded the IBM/DOS personal computer by a handful of years. The machine itself was about the size of a desk. It had 10″ boot disks, and the monitor/keyboard were all part of the desk/machine itself. There was a dot matrix printer which stood on the floor and fed tractor-feed paper (most of the time, invoices in 3 parts). (Click this link to see an image, can’t believe I found one!)

There was also a huge metal box, connected with a wire cable over an inch diameter (not shown in image linked above). It held the data disk. In order to back up at night, we had to open the box like a car trunk, unscrew the disk out, put a new one in, copy data to the extra disk, then remove that and put the main one back in. There were 4 disks in all. I am sure they were pricey things, though they no doubt held very little data by today’s standards.

Clunky but Effective Telex

Next to that machine sat two TWX/Telex machines. The more modern one (it had a pushbutton dialing pad) was owned by a major appliance manufacturer, and we used it only to order parts from that manufacturer. The other one was owned by my employer, an older one with a dial (it looked nearly identical to the one in these photos). We ordered from assorted other parts suppliers on that one.

The technology was evolved from the old morse-code telegraph system, and by WWII there were banks of telex operators using typewriter keyboards to send messages as quickly as technology would allow. The machines I used had built-in modems which would connect our machine directly to a computer at the parts supplier.

We would enter an order in a very specific format, and the numbers would be fed into the system, with no human on the far end. With the one supplier, we would get parts sent out the next day if they fit a certain criteria.

How the Gizmo Worked

How this actually worked, was that you had a ticker tape, a very strong and rigid/smooth paper tape, which got punched with basically a binary code (hole or no hole, off/on) as you typed. Each keystroke took one row of tape.

The keys you typed on with your fingers, were manual. You had to throw each key hard and strong, or that tape would not be perforated properly. (You can imagine how hard it was for me to get used to “quiet” computer keyboards after that training.)

No Room for Mistakes

We sometimes had dozens of line items to type. You typed a quantity, a space or a comma, and then the part number. To start a new line, you had to both hit the line feed key and the carriage-return key.

For the dedicated manufacturer-owned machine, we could not make one typo or the order would fail. If you made a single stroke that was wrong, you had to start over typing the order. That manufacturer had numbers only, no letters or hyphens. An order might look like this in the middle:

1,350020
2,240020
5,123456

The paper printout could be feet long, with enough numbers on a page to make your mind numb. If you blew a single keystroke, you started over. The tickertapes were often twice as long as I was tall. It was stressful work. (I did figure out how to fix a non-dedicated-machine tape but had to pretend I wasn’t breaking “the rules” even when saving my employer’s time/money by doing it.)

twxa-450

Beep, Beep, the Modem Song

After you made the tape (at right in photo above), you ripped off the tape and put it in a tape reader which interpreted the perforations and sent them as data through a phone line. You dialed the number of the part supplier’s machine, and when it indicated it was ready, you pushed a button to tell it to start reading the tape. It made a horrible racket!

You didn’t know how things had gone until the tape was read and the other computer sent you a message (which printed on your paper), that said it was received properly. More stress. Mind you, I needed this job SO badly that I just did whatever they needed me to do. It was not about having fun or liking the work. It was about being grateful for income, and I was.

Photo Luck

I took the above photos through a plate glass window at the ATT (formerly Michigan Bell) building on N. Washington, in downtown Lansing. There is a “history of phone communication” museum in the building. That is, there are items there which once were open to the public.

Now nobody watches the space, and so we can not go inside any more. Luckily, this piece was in the window where I could photograph it as I walked by on the sidewalk.

How about You?

Anyone else out there ever use a 10″ floppy disk? Anyone else out there do any TWX/Telex work? I think we are becoming rare birds.

My father died in 1973. He was a statistician and he did his calculations with a slide rule. He said he would buy a pocket calculator when they went under $500 and fit in a pocket. No luck for him. My brother bought one in ’75 which fit the bill.

And now I have an iPod Touch. It surfs the web in my hand. It runs a lot of programs, has a built-in calculator and surely there are available apps that would do what dad did with his slide rule. For less than those 1973 calculators.

I *SO* wish I could give my dad a Touch for his birthday, you know? He would LOVE it.

Sailing into the Future

I think we are past Dick Tracy’s amazing image/telephone watches, now. It’s good to remember where we came from.

7 Responses to “A Blast from My Past: Telex Machine”

  1. Charlotte Says:

    I never worked on the machines you described but when I started my secretarial career, I typed on a manual typewriter. We sent telegrams which were typed on a multi-copy carbon form (carbon paper between layers) and then taken to someone in the mailroom who did whatever magic was necessary to get the message on its way. We’d get replies which were printed out on paper that evidently rolled out of a machine and was ripped off. One of the major things I did on my first job was type multiple copies of incoming inventory using carbon paper to send to our branch managers. If I needed more copies, they were typed on a mimeograph paper which was then put on the drum of a machine and produced purple copies. By the time I retired, I was using a PC and copiers were familiar pieces of equipment in most offices. The shorthand I had learned had pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur with dictation being recorded on small tapes and transcribed from there. But most managers had PCs too and dictation of any type was fast disappearing.

  2. Trish Says:

    Ah… mimeographs… I worked in the office at my Jr. High during one of my class periods and remember “running off” mimeograph copies (and the smell of the fluid the machine used… I’m sure it was toxic LOL) In high school I had a computer class and all I can remember is writing programs where each line started with 10 or 20 or 30 and “GO TO LINE….” was used a lot. And this info was transferred to a skinny paper tape with holes punched out. Seriously that’s all I can recall. When we got married, our first computer was a Commodore 64, and oh how happy we were to play silly games on it (and that’s about all we did with it) and the JOY we experienced when Windows came along… never did care for that DOS business hehe. Yeah, we’ve come a long way, baby! (I remember how expensive calculators were when they first came out. Now you buy one at the dollar store, and it’s powered by solar) I LOVE my iPod Touch too, Lynn. Isn’t it the cat’s meow?

  3. Teresa Says:

    What about the punch cards and the machines that we used with them?

    I remember the tape you describe, they were still using it when I started my current job and did so for 3 or 4 more years.

  4. lisa in toronto Says:

    Did you ever use an “acoustic coupler”?
    My father was a computer science professor, and would tie up the phone line in the 1970s sending/receiving some kind of pre-internet data.
    Initially one had to plug the phone handset into two rubber cups to make a secure connection.
    For a long time we had a second line for the modem, as if the line was disconnected it caused a problem.
    I visit a cottage where we can only dial up for internet (OK we really shouldn’t even dial up, but we do) – and I still hear the modem song during that process.
    There is a computer museum in Waterloo I think – they must have an acoustic coupler there.
    p.s. we still worked with punch cards while I was in high school. I had some special stickers to cover mistake holes on the cards.

  5. Serene Says:

    Are Telex machines still used? I used one when I was working as an Executive Secretary, 15 years ago. Are they still sold at any stores?

  6. Gabriel Says:

    Actually where I work we still use a telex system, just instead of using paper it goes straight to a monitor. At least it runs on Windows NT, but it’s still ancient. It’s way too complicated for use, but surprisingly stable and reliable, though our main reason for using it is that it’s secure as hell. It’s a highly customized telex system though, so I haven’t even been able to figure out exactly how it works. I think it goes off of the phone line, but this stuff is beyond me.

  7. John Says:

    I last used my Telex machine (a model 32) in 1993, when I placed it in storage. I had purchased it used in 1980.

    A month ago I took it out of storage and had it renovated. It came “home” today. I plugged it in and on local (I don’t have it hooked up) it just hummed away.

    I turned on the tape punch and there I was, typing away, just like 19 years ago. Then I ran the tape…click, click, click it went. Now, that was quite a thrill.

    My next goal is to see if I can find someone who can hook it up to a PC and print from it. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know.