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The top 4 productivity apps of 1920

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on December 19, 2019

As we embark upon the 2020’s now is the perfect time to take a look back at the “Roaring 20s” and the technology that made that decade’s rapid economic growth possible.

U.S. Real GDP Per Capita (1900 - 2017)

U.S. Real GDP Per Capita (1900 - 2017) bfi.uchicago

Here are the top four productivity apps of 1920, as decided by the Clockwise team.

1. The Filofax

Before there was the iPhone, or even the Blackberry, “no self-respecting mover and shaker would be seen dead without a personal organiser — and that meant the Filofax,” according to ABC News. Celebs like Diane Keaton and Woody Allen were fans.

Filofax started in 1921, when Norman and Hill hired Grace Scurr as a temporary secretary/typist. The London firm of printers and stationers imported personal filing systems from the United States. Scurr saw the potential for manufacturing them in the UK, and floated the name Filofax as an abbreviation of the phrase "file of facts." The company changed their name, and trademarked Filofax in 1930.

Grace Scurr

Grace Scurr's passport photo bleistift

But changing the company’s direction and name was just the start for Grace. During WWII Germans bombed out the offices, destroying all their records. “You’re finished - you’ll never start again,” a nearby florist told Grace.

Because Grace had been copying the company’s customers and suppliers into her two diaries, which she took home with her at night, she rebuilt the company within days. “I went round and told everyone we were starting again,” she recalled. “They all laughed at me, but I was determined to carry on.”

Filofax gave Grace a shareholding and she went on to become Chairwoman until retiring in 1955.

Grace sold her 15 percent in 1982 for about $2,500. In 1985, Christmas shoppers spent more than $500,000 on Filofaxes. In 1987, the year Grace died at 93, the company was bringing in more than $1.6 million in profit. In her obituary, AP news called the Filofax “the Western world’s favorite personal compendium.” But noted that Grace had no regrets. ″I’m not much of a one for money,″ Grace said.

In 1996, to mark their 75th anniversary, Filofax launched a limited run based on Grace Scurr’s diary. The company released just 1,921 burnished calf-leather, dual gilt-mechanism Filofaxes.

Today, Filofax is still going strong helping make type-As even more productive. “It's legible even in bright sunlight, doesn't need batteries or an AC adaptor, and it never crashes or loses data,” wrote reviewer Greg Graham.

Modern-day Filofax

Modern-day Filofax abowlfulloflemons

2. The electric typewriter

In 1920 James Fields Smathers of Kansas City completely revolutionized the American office by producing the first practical power-operated typewriter after coming home from a stint in the Army.

The typewriter could produce text five times faster than handwriting and the text was easier-to-read. Adding carbon paper to the mix made copying even faster.

Fun fact: Ever wondered why the keys on your keyboard aren’t arranged in alphabetical order? In the late 1800s mechanical typewriters had typehammers that would collide and jam if you typed two keys that are close together too quickly one after the other. To disentangle them you’d have to reach your hand inside and get ink and oil on your hands. Christopher Latham Sholes designed the first popular typewriter where often-used keys were spaced widely apart so each hammer has time to fall back down and get out of the way of the next hammer that's about to rise up, reducing the risk of a jam.

Underwood typewriter

Underwood typewriter [Pinterest](https://www.pinterest.com/pin/536702480595872725/

Innovations in office equipment like the typewriter helped usher women into offices to operate these machines. By the 1970s, virtually every office on the planet had a typewriter, as well as many homes.

3. Air conditioning

Have you noticed that it’s harder to work in the heat? Turns out the higher the temperature, the lower the employee productivity and higher the absenteeism.

“Air conditioners are the enablers of modern American life,” writes Rebecca Rosen in How the Air Conditioner Made Modern America. “The development of the entire IT industry might not have happened without cooling technologies first pioneered by air conditioning.”

American inventor Willis H. Carrier invented the first commercially available air conditioning units in 1902. His invention stabilized air temperature and humidity at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company, which prevented the magazine pages from wrinkling and changing size and kept the ink from smearing.

Carrier centrifugal chiller

The first installation of Carrier's historic “centrifugal chiller” consisted of three 75-ton units, installed at the Stephen F. Whitman & Son's Philadelphia candy plant in 1923. williscarrier

In 1914 Charles Gates installed the first air conditioner in a private home -- his. However, the seven-foot-high, six-foot-wide, 20-foot-long unit might have never been used, since no one ever lived in the house.

In the 1910s the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America increased productivity in a variety of industries via massive air conditioners. The 1920s ushered in innovations that shrunk air conditioning units and improved their safety. Willis Carrier debuted his centrifugal refrigeration machine (or "chiller") in May 1922 at a new movie theater in Times Square. Over the next five years, 300 movie theaters across America installed chillers of their own, helping usher in the Golden Age of Cinema.

Early air conditioners cooled with toxic or flammable gases that sometimes killed people when they leaked. Things got even safer in 1928 when Thomas Midgley, Jr. Freon invented the first non-flammable, non-toxic chlorofluorocarbon gas.

So while you freeze at your desk in August, you can thank Willis H. Carrier.

4. Airmail

The US’s first authorized airmail service happened on September 23, 1911. Earle L. the "Birdman" Ovington volunteered to fly the three miles from an airfield on Nassau Boulevard near Garden City to a post office in Long Island to the post office at Mineola, N.Y. for free with 640 letters and 1,280 postcards balanced on his knees in his Bleriot Queen monoplane (named Dragonfly and emblazoned with a bold “13” on the rudder).

Ovington threw the mailbag over the side of the plane at 500 feet, as planned, and hit the target perfectly. But the bag burst open on landing, scattering the mail in the wind. Luckily the crowd gathered the mail and they went on their way.

Earle Ovington in his Dragonfly

Earle Ovington in his Dragonfly airmailpioneers

WWI drastically improved air travel, and in 1918 the federal government offered $100,000 to any company to create the first airplane-based postal route. Colonel E.A. Deeds, head of the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps, took up the challenge in large part to give pilots more cross-country flying experience before going overseas.

In an interview with KFSD Radio in 1938, Otto Praeger, Assistant Postmaster General in charge of the first air mail, said that when Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson assigned him with organizing and operating the U.S. air mail Burleson told Praeger, “the air mail, once started, must not stop.”

This despite inexperienced pilots, no radios, and basic planes. The pilots used dead reckoning to orient themselves since navigation technology was mostly limited to compasses that only kind of worked. Three of the first 40 Post Office pilots died in crashes in 1919 alone, with nine more dying in 1920.

“In bad weather we hung on every explosion of the exhaust with a prayer,” Captain Jack Knight said of the early flights. “Flying at 30 to 50 feet with never over 100 feet forward visibility in the average fog—made a great many angels of good pilots. Rushing thru this murk at 100 M.P.H.—Suddenly a wooded hillside looms up—just about 1/10 of a second of indecision and it’s just too bad.” He wrote his last will and testament on an old envelope during one such trip. Knight is remembered for flying the first day-to-night trip between New York and San Francisco on February 22, 1921. He flew through snow and storms with a broken nose and bruises from a plane crash earlier that week. The trip lasted 33 hours and 20 minutes.

On May 15, 1918, Army Air Service pilots flew the world’s first regularly scheduled airmail route. Pilots flew 218 miles between New York and Washington, D.C., with a stop at Philadelphia. One plane ran out of gas twice before convincing a farmer to drive him.

They flew one round trip per day, every day but Sunday, until August 10, 1918, when the Post Office Department replaced Army pilots with their own.

By 1919 the Post Office Department was flying three routes with eight planes flying a total of 1,906 miles every day. By September 8, 1920 airmail served Omaha and North Platte Nebraska; Washinton, D.C; New York; Chicago; St. Louis; Minneapolis; San Francisco; Cheyenne, Rawlins and Rock Springs, Wyoming; Salt Lake City; and Elko and Reno, Nevada. In 1920 the Post Office Department installed radio stations at each field to improve safety.

In 1925, the Kelly Act authorized the Post Office to contract out airmail delivery to private contractors to encourage commercial aviation.

What’s in store for the 2020s?

There you have it for the top four productivity apps of the 1920’s. So what will the top productivity apps of 2020 be? We can only guess, but we hope one of them will be Clockwise.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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