I recently came across a Smithsonian article about the Americas oldest known telephonic device, a gourd and twine contraption from the Chimu Empire in northern Peru that enabled communication up to a distance of 75 feet. The author posits that it may have been used by servants to communicate with their masters without making eye contact, a forbidden practice in that culture. It is easy to think of those servants as the earliest telecommuters and imagine them participating in the world’s first conference calls by huddling around the “receiver,” straining to hear the shouted instructions of the master.
I tried to envision the inventor’s aha moment that led to such an innovation, then quickly realized that like most breakthroughs it must have been the result of many cycles of trial and error, failure and incremental improvement.
The practice of telecommuting itself has undergone decades of experimentation and maturation, marked by spurts of growth as technology advances and new organizational models enabled greater mobility and connectivity. A recent New York Times article, citing the American Community Survey, notes that the number of telecommuting workers rose by 79% between 2005 and 2012 and now numbers 3.2 million.
I first heard the term “telecommuting” back in the mid-eighties while working as a writer and editor at The Diebold Group, a Park Avenue technology consultancy and research service. For more than thirty years its chairman, John Diebold, had been a pioneer in helping large organizations understand how to use computers to automate business processes and was widely credited with coining the term “automation.” An elegant, courtly, and tenaciously innovative man, Mr. Diebold (we never called him “John”) also employed one of the first modern telecommuters.
While being interviewed in 1983 for a Computerworld article, Mr. Diebold was impressed by the journalist, Catherine Marenghi. He offered to hire her as his researcher and ghostwriter, but Catherine lived in Boston and did not want to relocate to New York. For some time, technology visionaries like Mr. Diebold and Alvin Toffler had been predicting the rise of the telecommuter, and here was an opportunity to walk the talk. They agreed that Catherine would telecommute. (At the time, estimates of the number of full-time telecommuters ranged from 3,000 to 30,000 nationwide.)
Working in a well-appointed home office, Catherine would draft an article, press release, or book chapter on her DEC Rainbow and send it via dialup modem to the company’s Wang word processor in the New York office. Mr. Diebold would review a printout and mark his changes in longhand; these notes would typically be mailed back to Catherine or held for the next time she visited the office.
This arrangement seems quaint and labor intensive today, but it was highly productive. In five years of remote collaboration, Catherine and Mr. Diebold produced three books and hundreds of speeches, bylined articles and press releases. Their unusual arrangement also garnered significant press coverage that helped popularize a then-novel mode of work called “telecommuting” that we all take for granted today.
So the next time your dog barks while you are hosting a global conference call from your home office, you can thank–or blame–two mad geniuses separated by 1200 years but united by the spirit of ingenuity.
This is Part 1 of Present at the Birth: A Series on the Genesis of Today’s Technology.
Photo: From the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (Travis Rathbone)