Wed
Oct 14 2009 11:52am
The Steampunk Office

The office is a major aspect of modern post-industrial life. Its system of organized bureaucracy can be found in various institutions worldwide, from governments to corporate businesses to the service industry. The flow of paperwork and data processing that allows the modern world to function would be impossible without the concentration of clerical staff provided by the office environment. As with many other aspects of modern life, the modern office traces its lineage most clearly to the structural changes of the 19th century; changes which still define our society today.

While the most infamous icon of office life, the cubicle, was not developed until the mid-20th century, the structure of modern office life was already in place by the end of the 19th century. As industrialization and urbanization increased over the century, the expansion of businesses and government systems demanded an increase in the scale of record keeping. This demand was met by the rise of a sizable middle class that could fill the 19th century’s version of data entry jobs. Other aspects of the modern office were also clearly anticipated during the Victorian era. The typewriter can be seen as a clear precursor to the late 20th century word processor, while pneumatic tubes and eventually teletypewriters allowed for the rapid transmission of documents in the manner of modern fax machines or even the Internet. Even the modern daily commute was anticipated by the use of cabs, trains, and omnibuses that transported people throughout the growing cities from as far off as the new middle class suburbs.

In addition to being a fascinating subject on its own, the 19th-century parallels to the modern office play an important role in the steampunk genre, which is by nature highly structured and susceptible to the demands of paperwork that accompany a technologically advanced society. As with much of the Victorian era, historical fact seems almost like a science fiction re-imagining of its modern descendents. While steampunk may well expand on historical precedent to bring it even more in line with modernity (perhaps with pneumatic tubes or teletypewriters at every typist’s desk, with “viral videos” being played on miniature film projectors, and with tech support armed with overalls and a screwdriver rather than khakis and anti-virus software), the steampunk office and the Victorian office still look very much the same.


G. D. Falksen is a writer and student of history who has given lectures on the steampunk genre and subculture. He misses the days when a three-piece suit was considered casual. Further details can be found on his website, www.gdfalksen.com

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
4 comments
Jaymee Goh
1. Jha
Where is that picture from? That actually rather looks like the "new" "open concept" office being employed by a few companies today, in order to break free of the cube farm model (with modifications, of course).
meg d
2. meg d
I also found the office tech in Paris in the 20th Century (early Verne) fascinating-- writing a decade before the debut of the typewriter, Verne foresaw the FAX, but still had exclusively handwritten documents.
René Walling
3. cybernetic_nomad
Actually, there was a commercial fax service available between Paris and Lyon starting in 1865 and I wouldn't be surprised if Verne knew about it.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantelegraph

People in those days had access to a lot of cool tech
GD Falksen
4. gdfalksen
@Jha: I don't know the specific location, but from hairstyle and dress I'd guess it's first decade 20th century. The picture has "Enrollment Department" written at the bottom, so perhaps it's an office for a university or other group organization. And you're right, it's very much a precursor to our "new" open office idea.

@meg d: Verne was really a wonder with understanding and incorporating existing technology and using it to anticipate future developments.

@cybernetic_nomad: I love that thing. The 19th century is full of "pre-modern" modern technology.

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