Office equipment operators – technicians at the heart of banking

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After the First World War, the banking sector had to become more efficient in order to control its labour costs. In the 1920s, office equipment revolutionised life in offices. The Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris was one of the first banks to integrate new data processing techniques. At the time, office equipment operators performed an essential job that no longer exists.

Innovation in the making

In the early twentieth century, banking operations involved dealing with numerous printed documents: account statements, paper asset slips, securities account sheets, multiple copies of accounting procedures, etc. An increasing number of operations had to be processed because there were more and more customer accounts. Not only was it necessary to control labour costs which had soared due to post-war inflation, the efficiency of administrative tasks also had to be improved. Therefore, office equipment offered new opportunities. In the United States and Germany, an office automation industry was set up. Accounting machines were developed and the punch-card machines, created for the American census of 1890, arrived on the French market in the 1920s. The Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris (CNEP) was one of the country’s first banks to adopt these new data processing techniques. In 1926, it invested 2.6 billion francs to acquire 90 accounting machines. These changes led to the creation of a new type of job in banking – office equipment operators.

Tabulator Bull BS 120 (electrical accounting machine) opened during its maintenace – BNP Paribas Historical Collections
Tabulator Bull BS 120 (electrical accounting machine) opened during its maintenace – BNP Paribas Historical Collections

Trained technicians

Technicians became all the more essential due to fact that mechanisation was growing. In the mid-1930s, all CNEP branches in Paris and the provinces were equipped with accounting machines, punch-card machines, tabulators and card sorters. Specific know-how was required to use them. Therefore, machine manufacturers provided training to teams who would work in office equipment workshops. In these workshops, keypunch and verifier operators produced cards that were used for entering data into machines. Electrical mechanics worked there too with their voltmeters and oil applicators for machine maintenance.

Accounting and Mechanical data processing room at the BNCI’s custodian Center for the securities in Dinan (France), in 1939 – BNP Paribas Historical Collections
Accounting and Mechanical data processing room at the BNCI’s custodian Center for the securities in Dinan (France), in 1939 – BNP Paribas Historical Collections

Specific qualities

These employees were critical to the smooth running of the bank which was an information industry. Office equipment operators had to constantly pay attention to what they were doing to avoid errors; they had to be observant and resilient because handling the heavy drawers of card indexes could be tiring. They also needed to have good powers of concentration because the noise of machines filled the workshop. In the 1950s, office equipment was in its heyday and the profession of office equipment operator was taught in secondary schools and technical high schools. With the arrival of computers in the 1960s, the profession gradually disappeared and new banking professions developed. Office equipment operators gave way to programmers, computer operators, console operators, etc.

Computer room of the BNP, 1969 – BNP Paribas Historical Collections
Computer room of the BNP, 1969 – BNP Paribas Historical Collections
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