With the start of a new year I had the urge to reminisce on the use of past technology.
I was particularly thinking about my past work days, period late 70s to early 80s when we moved to what was then new electronic technology. Although it was a fascinating period it did also have its human impact.
In the field of telecommunications and messaging I had set-up a communications centre (comcen) for a major offshore construction company. This multi-national company back in 1970s-1980s had huge contracts for construction and placing of offshore platforms and pipe-laying at sea. Communications with their offshore vessels (barges, crane lifting vessels, pipe laying vessels) and thousands of offshore workers was vital for their operations and logistics. In those days their work in the North Sea area was directed by their Brussels North Sea Division office.
Telecommunications consisted mainly of public telex, private teletype networks, telex over radio (TOR), radio telephony. The communications centre (comcen) acted as a relay point to/from offshore vessels. In those days messaging was tape relay using telex, teleprinter operations. The need was for 24/7 operations in the comcen due to the safety and logistics aspects of the offshore work. To fulfill continuous operation a shift system employing a team of nine operators was needed. It was a busy place with a lot of messaging traffic involving many departments such as engineering, accounting, human resources, health and safety. I mention this to highlight the importance of telecommunications in the running of such operations. You need to realise that these were the days without internet or mobile phones and satellite communications was very expensive.
With the arrival of digital technology, office computers like the IBM PC XT/AT, VDU terminals, automatic message switching and store forward equipment became a reality. Tape relay was becoming a thing of the past as we started to use floppy diskettes or wordprocessing on visual display units (VDU) terminals. The new comcen (click on image left) would look very different without the mechanical teleprinter. Implementing these in the work place needed much planning and training for staff. The impact of automation was significant. Now there were electronic machines capable of running 24/7. The effect on human resources was that you no longer required the night shift nor coverage on Sundays. It was enough to have a reduced team to deal with anomalies and breakdowns. Such was the effect of automation that the team was eventually reduced from nine to four staff.
While the advent of new technology was being praised, the human realities was something else. It meant retraining and in many cases redundancies. Computers started to take over human tasks and technology was advancing at a rapid rate. A telecom man coming from the anode/cathode tube time through to the transistor age and landing into the computer chip age is left with a dizzy spell at the speed of all this. Now we have internet and transparent interconnectivity so what’s next ?