From portable typewriters to brick-like mobiles, the tech tools of those travelling for work have undergone a revolution, says Jeff Mills.
It’s the mid-1970s and I’m setting off on yet another overseas business trip. There’s the suitcase and the carry-on, one of those chunky leather bags much loved by airline pilots and travelling journalists (you could fit half a dozen bottles of booze inside them if the need arose). Then there was the latest technology for globetrotting business people. A so-called portable typewriter, which weighed the best part of today’s total airline baggage allowance, with plenty of paper, carbon paper and ribbons to go with it.
In those days, technology was heavy, and remained so for quite some time. When mobile phones appeared in the mid-1980s, they were so huge you had to carry them in a special bag. I still proudly remember my first one. It was mobile only in the sense it was fitted into my company car. The handset could be fixed to the dashboard or between the front seats, but the main workings were in a steel box, which was so hefty it had to be installed in the boot.
Whether travelling in the UK or internationally, the challenges of staying in touch with the office continued when I reached my destination. Once I had checked into my hotel, my first question to the reception staff was usually “Where is the business centre?”
A visit was always a priority, just to make sure that it had everything I was likely to need, including phones, which allowed you to make reverse-charge calls to the office and, a few years later, a fax machine for transmitting pages of prose direct from my portable typewriter.
In some overseas countries it was even necessary to book a phone call back to the office, sometimes days ahead. Even then, there was no guarantee that an international telephone line would be available when you needed it. You simply had to be near your designated phone at the agreed time and hope for the best.
And, in those far-off days, you would have been foolish to even think of using the phone in your hotel room for fear of the eye-watering cost. You needed to have a very understanding boss to sign off those kinds of expense bills.
One hotel general manager of my acquaintance once admitted to me that guestroom phones were considered a profit-centre in the five-star hotel he ran (which had better remain nameless). Most years they contributed around £1 million to the hotel’s bottom line, he told me.
The emergence from the technological dark ages for those travelling overseas on business – and, for that matter, those working in offices anywhere – really started when typewriters were replaced by electronic word processors, which of course still didn’t allow you to transmit documents. They eventually morphed into computers, which did.
Mind you, early versions of computers weren’t portable enough to be taken on a business trip, but it did mean you might be lucky enough to find a desktop version you could use (possibly for a fee) in your hotel’s business centre. This meant that by using a modem it was possible to transmit your documents down a phone line to another computer back at headquarters.
Laptop computers were hot on the heels of these desktop designs, but even they were often a bit too big to take on a business trip. Their gradual lightening led to iPads and other forms of tablet, which were able to perform many of the functions of a laptop with none of the weight problems. Work aside, they also provide entertainment should the in- flight offerings fall short of your expectations, and that is only the start. Few business travellers these days would dream of leaving home without one.
March of progress
The irony is that as technology has become lighter, so the options for transporting it have improved. Suitcases with wheels were an absurdity back then. The wheels fell off, and the carpeted surfaces in airports meant you had to drag the case. Now wheels have improved, many cases have four or even eight wheels (when counted in pairs), and we can happily take a five-day trip without even checking in our bags, with our technology tucked away somewhere in our luggage.
What has changed now is airport security. I recently forgot I had an iPad in my bag, but was reminded as I was subjected to secondary screening. What a difference. From staggering through an airport with a typewriter to forgetting I was carrying a powerful computer. Now that’s progress. It’s just a shame about the necessity for all that security, but maybe technology will fix even that. Here’s hoping.
Jeff Mills has been a travel reporter and editor for more than 30 years.