About the Santa Fe Historical Society

From Pencils to the Computer Age
Railroader Musings of a Time Gone By!

By D. K. Spencer

In these days of a computer on nearly every desk in the modern office, and information of the world just a click away, I am prompted to "Hearken Back to the Days of Yore" when I commenced my career. Almost everyone of my age had grown up with the Palmer method of learning to write legibly as taught in the lower grades, and had been repeatedly drilled in how we were to write neatly and clearly if we were to succeed in the business world. Remember drawing all those circles, that would resemble a reclining "slinky" of today ?

When I started in 1944, manual typewriters were common, but most had the small carriage for standard paper width of 8 1/2 inches. Very few line offices had the wide carriage billing machines, that would accept 11 inch wide reports. Therefore, reports of that size were mostly handwritten with pencils of varying degrees of hardness of lead, due to multiple carbon copies. Ball point pens had not been developed yet, and fountain pens did not have the type of point for multiple copy pressure writing.

The Mud Hop

Since a railroad is in business to haul freight in rail cars, the most important document of any station, was the daily yard check, usually made by a person called a "mud hop" or yard clerk, who walked down each track recording car numbers, on a form with original and two carbon copies. The original was the permanent record of cars in the yards each day, and showing if they were loaded or empty, and the copies went to division offices.

This check was made regardless of weather. Pencils were easy to write with and could be erased. In later years, we used ball point pens, but erasable pencil errors made better records than entries blacked out with ink, which in wet weather tends to be messy.   John Burton, author of other stories on this web site, tells of soaking the yard check form in kerosene, to make it waterproof.  When the kerosene dried out, the numbers were quite legible.  Another example of ingenuity of the working man!  The whole day's business revolved around the yard check. Even today, 13 years after retirement, some of my frantic dreams are of unknown cars on tracks I may have missed on my rounds.

For many years, "nerds" have been classified by the plastic shirt pocket protector loaded to the hilt with writing tools. It was no different in our day as we carried multiple sharpened pencils, each fitted with an arrowhead shaped detachable eraser, since rail pencils were not equipped with commercial erasers. This was especially true if we were afoot in the rail yards, away from the office for extended periods of time.

For multiple copy reports, most used a No. 3 hardness, but some used a No. 4, which was the hardest. Either a 3 or 4 produced writing that was not as easy to read as the No. 2 which was a soft lead used for single sheets. A drawback to a No. 2 was the "crumbles" that a soft lead would leave, making the original copy look messy. A No. 4 lead was sometimes a detriment, especially if the paper was thin. If the lead had not been rounded off, by rubbing the sides of the point on a piece of scratch paper, it would tear the paper. Train orders were copied on very thin paper we called "onion skin", and a rough point would play havoc in trying to make multiple copies, however train order carbon had the carbon black on both sides, causing copies to be heavy black on both sides of the paper.

A special use pencil was the "indelible", almost like ink which could not be erased, making a permanent record. However, if the writing got wet, it would make a purple smear of your work! I never used it much. 

Daily Reports

The end of day reports were known as abstracts which were summaries of the business of the day. The abstracts were color coordinated, and were of standard paper size of 8 1/2 x 11 inches, with the form printed in the landscape form, or sideways. I believe white was local received, and light blue interline received. Yellow was local forwarded, and salmon was interline forwarded. All reports were made with original and two carbon copies, five sheets in all counting the thick reusable carbon sheets, which left the last copy somewhat faint, however we always kept the first carbon copy for our records.

Ingenuity prevailed however. Every office had several 9 X 12 inch metal signs sent out by the Travelers Insurance Company that were supposed to be mounted on walls advertising their service. We used the extra signs as backing plates for assuring clear carbon copies!

Freight handled between two Santa Fe served communities were considered Local, and referred to as "System". Freight handled between a Santa Fe served community and a community served by another rail company was considered Interline or "Foreign". Every shipment, whether LCL (less than carload) or CL (carload) was accompanied by a numbered document known as a waybill, that listed the origin; shipping date; shippers name; destination city; consignee's name; route if interline; contents; weight; assessed rate; and total amount charged, either to be collected, or prepaid by the shipper. All of this information had to be reported in daily reports, and a balance sheet was issued to recap the totals of each day's report.

Every office can remember an instance in which the reports had to be written again after the original reports had been made and destroyed by some event. Our Lamar Colorado office was across the street from a drug store with a soda counter. Each summer afternoon, someone would get fountain delicacies and bring them back to our non-air conditioned office. One day the boss, R. N. Mason, had the tray over his head acting silly, and tripped spilling the whole mess on our finished reports. How nice it was to have the boss taking the blame for a change, and how much nicer it would have been, to have them saved on a floppy disc for reprinting!

Another document was known as a "freight bill" that mirrored the same information shown on the waybill. Since they were 8 1/2 wide, most typewriters handled them OK. Freight bills were usually original and 3 carbon copies. The original freight bill was given to the consignee after charges were paid, as his receipt, and he needed it for any future claims. Any damages were to be notated thereon, and the consignee signed one copy to be kept by us known as the "delivery receipt" acknowledging receipt of the goods. One copy went to the cashier for his accounting of money received, and the fourth copy was used as needed. The reusable carbon paper was as thick as the paper, so the standard set consisted of 7 sheets of paper. In later years, the forms came with single use carbons that were discarded after one use. I have seen some handwritten freight bill copies from stations without typewriters, that were very hard to decipher.

The Wonderful Typewriter

Typewriters were first developed in the 1870's. They had the ability to produce clear, easy to read documents, but early models were difficult to use, and I imagine offices were slow to adopt them to daily office use.

Later models were much easier to use, and produced clearer reports, but most of the typewriters used in early day rail offices were owned by the forward thinking men who used them. When typewriters proved to be useful, the railroads began to provide them, usually one to each office.

As a person fascinated with the mechanical aspects of various machines, typewriter classes in high school were a draw for me. I took typing mostly as an activity that I could do with my hands rather than the mundane study periods. I had no idea the typewriter would become a major part of my life's work.

Brands were Remington, Underwood, and R.C. Smith to name a few. Most were called "standard", were manually operated, and were very plain. For future generations unknowledgeable  about such ancient machines, they were basically a metal frame with no housing, with a row of key bars with a letter or symbol on the end of each bar, and a carriage with a composition roller known as a platen. Most of the carriages were too short to accept a paper in the 11 inch horizontal position, and could only accept paper 8 1/2 inches wide. They did allow room for multiple copies however. The paper was inserted into the carriage roller from behind and rolled into place. As each keybar was struck, the symbol would print on the paper and the carriage would move from left to right to the margin edge of the paper, when a bell would ring, alerting the operator to roll the paper up one space, and return the carriage to the left to being another line. In these days of multiple fonts and styles, we had only two sizes, pica (large) and elite (small). Some machines were "all capitals" in either font.

In school most of us were taught to hit the keys firmly, but lightly,  to keep from damaging the platen. In a business with multiple copies to be made, we learned to hit the keys hard, and to heck with the platen!

In later days, the machines were electrified, and the touching became light again, and the multiple keybars were eliminated in favor of a "daisy" ball which had all symbols on a round metal ball. These balls could be interchanged in various styles. We also were taught to keep our hands high as if playing a piano, not resting on the desk as computer users do!

The bigger division offices, were issued electric machines, but the line stations continued with the old standard manual machines. I never had an electric typewriter in any station that I worked.

In a way, humans are their own best enemy. We were hired to do a certain job with rules and tools provided by our employers. Since we are fascinated with every new gadget, we devise short cuts to make our jobs easier, and management is quick to notice these efforts, and to implement them as job requirements. In later years, we wonder why our jobs do not exist anymore, and we do not get any credit for our "inventions".

From pencils, to ball point pens, to typewriters, to computer keyboards has been my clerical road to follow. As a retiree I enjoy my home computer and rejoice in each new twist as I learn its operation. What will the 21st century hold for our descendants! I hope they enjoy their trip as much as I have enjoyed mine!

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