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Archive for February 26th, 2010

A Blast from My Past: Telex Machine

Friday, February 26th, 2010

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.


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:


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.)


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.