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Like all other places of worship at the moment, Christ Church URC remains closed for public worship.

Robert Swain shares some thoughts about getting back to normal.


People now often say that they will be glad when we get back to normal, but what is ‘normal’, meaning from lockdowns, etc with the pandemic.  Think about it and you will realise that there is not such a thing as ‘normal’ and that we will never return to just the same as we were.  I was idly thinking about this and realised how far things had altered in my working life from how they were at the time I started work on 5 October, 1959, just over sixty years ago.

That day, I entered an accountant’s office (no, please do not rapidly move on as this is not about accountancy, but adding up money, which we all do) in Lancaster.  I had gone into work on the bus, something which has always been normal for me as I have never learned to drive.

For the first few days, I was given two very boring books to read.  After that I was given a bit of actual work to do.  This was mainly checking the totals of columns of figures in a client’s books, all handwritten then.  It had been said to me that my additions could probably be improved.  Personally, I considered that my additions were perfectly all right.  However, I did soon become much better at adding the pages.  I added all of them in my head.  It was back in the days of pounds, shillings and pence, and we still had half pence, but did not use farthings, a quarter of an old penny. That was normal at the time.

It may be remembered there were twelve pence in a shilling and twenty shillings in a pound.  Nearly all the time in the office, totals of figures were checked manually, not by using a little machine.  The office did have an adding machine, which was only used when somebody needed to make a list of figures that were not written down.  The machine was quite a large affair because everything had its own key in a columns of keys.  Pence went up to 11 pence, up to nine pence in one column with the other two in an adjacent column.  The next column was for units of shillings, nought to nine.  Following on from that column was one where all ten figures were ‘one’, so ten shillings were that one and the nought in the earlier column.  Next came the units of pounds column where it was a nought at the bottom and a nine at the top.  Following on from that there were the tens and hundreds of pounds.  From memory, I don’t think that the machine went beyond nine hundred and ninety-nine pounds, nineteen shillings and eleven pence three farthings.

The adding machine was an old Burroughs one.  All it would do was add or subtract.  There was no question of doing multiplication or division.  To operate it, you had to press down the number keys, which stayed down until a handle of the right of the machine was pulled right down or an ‘error’ button pressed.  As it was operated, it was quite noisy and gave a clatter. Part way through a list, if required, the operator could press a sub-total key on the right, showing the total of the list so far.  Above that key was a red one, which gave the total of all the entries.

Not every organisation had an adding machine.  The local Collector of Taxes occasionally borrowed our adding machine!

Things changed and the staff at the office suggested that we needed a newer, modern adding machine.  As a result, somebody came round to the office and demonstrated an Olivetti machine which was smaller, quieter and could handle larger sums.  Instead of pushing down keys and them staying down, you pushed down the keys in the order of the amount, starting with the highest number of pounds and ending with the pence.  Half pennies and farthings had gone.  People did not use such figures by this time in the 1960’s.  There was a knob on the right on the front of the machine to push round as necessary to make the machine add, subtract, give a sub-total or give the final total.  This machine, too, a handle was pulled down on the right to operate it. All the staff used the machine, depending on what they were doing.  It did not divide or multiply.  To do that, you had to keep putting in the same figure, but this time just by keep pulling the handle down, the amount being entered not changing until the figures keys were pressed.  We all thought the machine a big advance.

Come 1969, I left that firm for another accountant’s office.  There, things were different.  He had a Burrough’s machine similar to the one which I had originally operated except that it was operated electrically by pushing down one key to add or another one to subtract.  That machine was very noisy and had a very limited capacity.

Work then had to be done, not on the machine but on my new employer to persuade him to buy a new Olivetti machine.  Eventually, he was persuaded to buy one and it was in very regular use for many years.

There were jobs where we went to the client’s premises to get the necessary figures and prepare accounts and saw the equipment that they had.  One was a firm where the boss liked to always seem to have the latest equipment.  He had an all electric machine, an Anita, which multiplied and divided as well added and subtracted.  However, it did not print out at all but just showed and electrical display, so would not have been suitable for us.  In any case, with a cost of, from memory, of over two hundred pounds, the boss would probably have passed out if buying one had been suggested. At that time, two hundred pounds was a considerable sum of money. In more modern times, I have had a small pocket calculator costing only a small fraction of what the Anita cost.  I still have it and use it from time to time.

Would we have believed back in those early times that most of us would, in 2020, be using computers doing huge calculations, connected to the internet and sending information more or less instantaneously around most of the world.  I very much doubt it.  What will people normally be doing in another fifty years time?  Certainly it will not be what we consider to be normal today, things will have evolved.  No, there is no such thing as normal, just progress, swift or slow.

Think about it; things never really returned to their old normal for the disciples 2,000 years ago!


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