From Carbons to Computers: The Changing American Office

Why Study Offices?

From Carbons to Computers: The Changing American Office explores a contemporary phenomenon that has strong ties to its past. The high-tech American office of today is more similar to than different from its predecessors twenty, fifty, or a hundred years ago. People still sit at desks and need something to write with and a place to store what they have written. A floppy disk is just a small-scale filing cabinet. Even more subtle continuities exist between office organization and management, past and present.

We can observe and examine what is left of the offices of the past in museums, in photographs, and in the remembrances of people who have worked in them. We IBM personal computerican also connect past to present and test our opinions and beliefs by visiting and thinking about living, working offices as they are today.

Offices also provide rich opportunities to consider how inventions and technological changes come about and how they affect daily life. Again, surprising parallels occur between past and present.

Furthermore, these fresh and exciting concepts are not isolated from the traditional social studies curriculum. Rather, Carbons to Computers can enrich students' understanding of several familiar themes: trade and commerce; economics; the industrial revolution; work; women's roles; technology; inventions; power; beliefs and customs; capitalism; postindustrial economy; reform movements; and change.

Morse operating room, c. 1892

The articles in this site are designed to be used as either teacher or student reading. Complex and challenging ideas are presented in lively, readable sections reinforced by key points outlines. Major emphases include:

  • defining the office
  • economic, social, and political influence
  • machines, equipment and change
  • organization and status
  • workers
  • trends

1980s office scene

Although this site is designed primarily to be used in conjunction with a history curriculum, it can provide enriching material for business teachers and students as well.

The Smithsonian invites teachers to duplicate this material for educational use. Please see our text-only version of this site for use when printing out text.

Carbons to Computers is an educational resource intended for middle and high schools students, their teachers, and the general public. The lesson plans cover the following:

U.S. History


Mid-Continent Regional Educational
Laboratory (McREL) educational standards


This Website was produced with generous support from Brother International Corporation.
Please visit our contributors page to see who else made this project possible.


Birth and Growth of the American Office

Office Equipment

Office Organization

Global Office


Historical Timeline

Lesson Plans


Site Contents

Carbons to Computers Home Page

Smithsonian Institution
Copyright 1998

Smithsonian Education

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History of Science, Technology and Invention