How the Secretary Became Extinct

Posted on October 13, 2012


For their entire careers, the majority of today’s office workers and even most top-level executives have relied on desktop or laptop computers for their written communications. Need to send a letter? Just call up Word, type up your thoughts and attach them to an email. Putting together a report? Use Word and its graphics capabilities to create a snazzy document in minutes.

In the decade before personal computers began filling the world’s offices, however, and well past the introduction of the first PCs, executives looked with some disdain on preparing their own documents. They dictated letters and memos to secretaries, who often took down the information in shorthand.  Then the secretary would use a typewriter to write up the communication and deliver it to the executive for (usually) his signature.

The process was labor intensive. Large companies maintained typing pools with secretaries and other entry-level personnel who listened to audiotaped dictation or received handwritten notes and literally cranked out documents on electric typewriters.  Since the typing process required imprinting letters directly onto the paper page, if the typist made a mistake, (usually) she could either start over or use any of several correction solutions—Wite-Out fluid, Wite-Out tape or simply an eraser. Xerox copies of the original generally hid the corrections—but they clearly were copies and required another expensive step.

Excellent typing skills thus became a highly valued capability for companies that expected documents to be clean and accurate, and the secretary was a critical cog in the corporate machine.

In 1976, everything began to change. Businesses started adopting the Wang word processor, a standalone device with a screen that for the first time separated the keyboarding process from the printing process.  (Wang was one of several companies offering word processors, but it became the most successful for its time.) Secretaries transformed into administrative assistants who used the Wang to create documents by storing the data they entered on magnetic tape or large floppy disks. The data then could be printed out at any time in any quantities on a separate printer. Moreover, the word processor offered spellcheck—an amazing advancement for the time—and allowed users to create what today we would call “macros,” stored words or phrases that could be inserted by simply pressing a combination of two keys on the keyboard.

This idea of separating typing from printing and also processing the data by proofreading and making corrections on the screen, rather than on the paper, and automatically correcting spelling was an absolute revelation for the office place. Companies initially had no idea of how to reorganize their workforce to use word processing most effectively. For years, going into the 1980s, many companies retained their typing pools but just gave the operators word processors instead of typewriters. Executives continued to dictate onto centralized recording devices and the word processing pool would type up the document on the Wang, print it out and submit it to the originator. Agencies and larger enterprises with writing staffs persisted in giving typewriters to their editorial personnel, who would type out their creative work and then send it to Word Processing to make a clean and corrected copy.

Years passed before the stigma associated with an executive creating his own documents diminished. Computer-based word processing programs became so easy and offered such obvious business advantages that a rising corps of executives began to carry out all the word processing functions at their own desks. Ultimately, they no longer needed dictation, nor typewriters, nor even standalone word processors. And they no longer needed secretaries.

Today, it’s a strange and somewhat creepy company that lists job positions for secretaries. Administrative assistants still can be found, but their responsibilities, fortunately, have been broadened considerably beyond the creation of documents. In the global economy, businesses are seeking the greatest possible contributions from every employee, so even entry-level staff no longer are relegated to pools and typing stations in any company that expects to succeed.

Secretaries once were the most crucial employees in the office. They were in a position to know everything about anything in the company—they typed up all the reports and letters. Today, data repositories make that information more widely available and more secure. Many of us miss the skills our secretaries once offered, but we will admit that we’re better off with Microsoft Office 2010.