Machines in the Office

Rodney Dale and Rebecca Weaver



One of the eight Discoveries & Inventions series for the British Library

Below are some examples of Machines in the Office…


Biro's Ballpoint Pen

British patent no 498,997 of 1938 for Biro's ballpoint pen.

The ballpoint pen was another effort to improve writing appliances. A ball housed in a socket revolves freely during writing and draws ink from the reservoir. A patent was taken out in 1888 by John Loud. The main problem this time lay in developing a suitable reservoir for a suitable ink, which had to be a great deal more viscous than fountain pen or stylographic ink. Ballpoints failed to gain credence until Hungarian László Biro patented his first design in 1938. Though the ballpoint, or 'biro', took over, it still has to bow in the face of the more conspicuous artistry of the fountain pen.





The British Post Office dates from 1635 when King Charles I found that money could be made from the royal postal service. Dates of posting were stamped on the letters and the cost of postage was assessed by the number of sheets of paper making up the letter. Originally, the system of 'posts' — the men whose job it was to carry the mail — did not operate in London. Accordingly, in 1680, a merchant named William Docwra organized his own penny post. The scheme was so successful that the government closed it down (!) on the grounds that it infringed the King's monopoly — promptly reopening it for its own benefit. It was a reciever-to-pay service, but it declined in profitability because so many of the classes of people who used the service — peers, state officials, members of parliament — had 'franking' privileges, that is to say they were exempt from payment. Roland Hill's penny post of 1840 was reversed that and, without exception, the sender of a letter had to pay before it was accepted.

Envelopes as we know them date from this time. There is evidence of a Babylonian form of clay envelope and mention was made in contemporary literature of a letter sent by the Duke of Saxe Gotha in 1640 which was folded envelope-style. Jonathon Swift (1667-1746) used the word 'envelope' in 1735 but probably meant a paper sleeve. From 1840 envelopes could be purchased complete with stamps — the 'Mulready' envelope. Mulreadies were commonly derided and before long were withdrawn. Senders then had to affix their own stamps to their own envelopes in the position dictated by the Post Office.

Before sealed envelopes, letters were folded and a blob of melted wax dropped on the join. A seal was sometimes pressed on to the wax leaving imprints of initials, mottoes, messages, coats of arms etc. This is the origin of the signet ring.

Various machines appeared towards the end of the 19th century to ease the load of the clerks handling the outgoing mail — machines for sealing (as shown above), addressing and stamping envelopes. Addressing machines worked by hand or treadle and produced stencilled or typographed addresses, the induvidual type being set in small frames.

The idea of a postage meter or 'franking machine' interested an American, Arthur H Pitney, about the turn of the century when he realised how easy it was for office boys to help themselves to the office stamps. The American postal authorities needed some persuading that a business could be responsible for its own franking. The machine Pitney developed with an Englishman, Walter Bowes, was finally accepted by the post offices in America in 1920 and in Britain in 1922.


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