A short history of virtual assistants and remote working

A virtual assistant (VA) is a person who works remotely online. With technological developments virtual assistants are now able to perform all the tasks a secretary or administrator would traditionally handle while working from home but how did virtual assistants come into being?

Isaac Pitman
Sir Issac Pitman

In the 1800’s Sir Isaac Pitman, invented Pitman shorthand and founded the first school for secretarial services. The school only admitted men, as women were not allowed in workplaces, however, with the invention of the typewriter, early technology paved the way for women’s entry into the profession and women went on to occupy office jobs and perform secretarial work. Historian Anna Davin records that when the British civil service took over operating telegraph and postal offices in the 1870s, female clerks were sought for their typing speed and dexterity, with the official in charge saying the wages ‘which will draw male operators from but an inferior class of the community, will draw female operators from a superior class.’ Women were favoured too because they could spell and type better, would raise the tone of the office, then marry and leave without requiring pensions. By the 1930s, men had disappeared from the industry and the role of secretary became a female one from then on.

A female typist operates a Sholes and Glidden typewriter, as depicted in an 1872 Scientific American article.

The word secretary originally meant ‘one entrusted with the secrets or confidences of a superior’ and is derived from the Medieval Latin ‘secretarius’. The Online Etymology Dictionary records the word was first recorded circa 1400 meaning a ‘person who keeps records, write letters, etc.,’ originally for a king. In the 1590’s the word referred to the title of ministers presiding over executive departments of state. The word is also used in both French and English to mean ‘a private desk’ or ‘secretaire’ in French, while the term ‘secretary bird’ refers to the bird found in sub-Saharan Africa, with a crest, which when smooth, resembles a pen stuck over the ear.

Vintage advertisement for an Underwood typewriter.

By the 1960’s ‘training respectable girls’ to be secretaries, focused on honing the relationship between the secretary and her boss but would-be secretaries at the Lucie Clayton school were also taught the importance of deportment and makeup, along with diary management. In her article ‘A Short History of the Secretary’ Claire Phipps writing in the Guardian quotes a letter published in The Times in 1969, advising that secretaries wear deodorant; learn how to make good tea and coffee; and always look beautiful, but not provocative … changing stockings was an activity best confined to the ‘powder room’. Typing pools saw large numbers of women find employment in a strict and disciplined environment, where a room of secretaries produced endless documents from shorthand notes.

Embed from Getty Images

When exactly the secretarial services industry gave rise to virtual assistants and who coined the phrase is up for debate but technology was the driving force. The telephone and fax machine helped bring people and workplaces together around the world and in the 1980’s the typewriter evolved into the word processor making document production quicker and easier. In the 1990’s the internet made the world smaller again and changed the way all people lived and worked, with the demise of the typing pool, a computer on everyone’s desk and at home, laptop computers, tablets and mobile phones for working anytime anywhere and an increase in remote working. Remote working may however have began earlier than you think, with IBM allowing five of its employees to work from home as an experiment in 1979, an experiment that by 1983 saw roughly 2,000 of its employees working from home; in the mid 1980’s the US department store J. C. Penney allowed its call centre staff to work from home; and by 2018, 70% of the worlds population was believed to work remotely at least once a week, with 55% working from home at least half the week.

Man working from home holding baby.

In the 2015 Financial Times article ‘The case of the vanishing secretary’, Emma Jacobs wrote of the dying secretarial services industry, reporting administrative jobs were in decline, however in 2020, it was not technology but a global pandemic causing a global reset, forcing people to work at home and to find new ways of working. Up until then it was estimated office workers spent 90,000 hours of their lives at the office. Collaborative software that enables the sharing, processing and management of files, documents and more among several remote users and/or systems, allowing them to work jointly on a task or project, was suddenly in huge demand.

Since the 1800’s office work, the people who do it and how they do it has come a long way and today, yet again, the role of the office is undergoing more disruption. How this works out long term is currently much debated, however, post pandemic, as things hopefully begin to return to normal, many people, myself included, have re-assessed their lives and the things that are important to them, liking their work life balance more and are open to the opportunity for change.

Further information

Sources

Bee.

© Toni Louise Abram at Izzy Wizzy. All Rights Reserved.

The importance of copyright

Copyright is the exclusive legal right, given to the creator of a piece of work, to print, publish, perform, film or record literary, artistic or musical material. I have chosen to write a blog post about this subject following experiences in workplaces – in particular a telephone call I received from Getty Images who had found one of their images on my organisations website and wanted paying for it and a conversation with a colleague who wanted to search Google images for an image to accompany something he would be putting online.

Just because something appears on the internet, doesn’t mean it is free to use. Any image that you right click and save or any piece of work that you download belongs to the person who made it or a third party who owns the copyright but while most copyright owners want their work to be seen, unless they have expressly given permission for their work to be used, you infringe someone’s copyright by using it without their permission.

The purpose of copyright is to stop others from using your work or copying it without permission and it is the responsibility of creators to defend their work against copyright infringement. Copyright protection starts as soon as a work is created and in most countries lasts a minimum of life plus fifty years for most types of work but it varies depending on the type of work. The protection applies to literature, drama, music or artistic work, including illustration and photography, non-literary written work, such as software, web content and databases, sound and music recordings, film and television, recordings, broadcasts, the layout of published editions of written, dramatic and musical works.

Copyrighted works are often marked with the copyright symbol (©), the creators name and the year of creation. The symbol is often found alongside a statement saying ‘all rights reserved’, which means you withhold all rights to the maximum extent allowable under law. Legally the phrase is the same as having no statement but the statement is commonly used to emphasise the copyright owner takes take their rights seriously.

Female photographer sitting in a field of flowers.
Photo by Jessica F.

History

The right to be identified as the creator of a piece of work can be traced back to ancient Greece as far as the 6th century before the common era (B.C.E) but it was with the invention of the printing press that the need for statutory regulation was realised. Richard III encouraged printing, while at the same time seeking to limit and censor texts deemed to be harmful to the church and crown.

Image by Janet Gooch.

In 1534 The Printers and Binders Act, banned the import of foreign works, enabling the Lord Chancellor to limit the price of books and in 1557 the Stationers’ Company received its Royal Charter from Mary I, giving the company the power to decree who could print books and the right to seize illicit or pirated works. The Licensing of the Press Act 1662 built on this work with an act for ‘preventing the frequent abuses in printing seditious treasonable and unlicensed books and pamphlets and for regulating of printing and printing presses’ which gave the Stationers’ Company the responsibility to censor literary works. However censorship led to public protest and in 1694, Parliament refused to renew the Act. The Stationers’ Company campaigned for new legislation to restore their role but this failed, leading to them changing their tactics and arguing authors should have a right of ownership in what they wrote.

The Pirate Publisher—An International Burlesque that has the Longest Run on Record, from Puck, 1886, satirising the then existing situation where a publisher could profit by simply stealing newly published works from one country, and publishing them in another and vice versa.

Parliament was persuaded and in 1710, this led to the enactment of the first Copyright Act, the Statute of Anne and for the first time copyright belonged to authors rather than the printers and publishers. The Statute of Anne begins ‘Whereas printers, booksellers, and other persons, have of late frequently taken the liberty of printing, reprinting, and publishing, or causing to be printed, reprinted, and published books, and other writings, without the consent of the authors or proprietors of such books and writings, to their very great detriment, and too often to the ruin of them and their families.’ The Statute remained in force until it was replaced by the 1842 Copyright Act and was greatly influential in the formation of other copyright laws across the world.

Statute of Anne.
The Statute of Anne.

Why is copyright important?

Creativity is the way that writers, artists and musicians make their living and if you use their work, it is important to acknowledge this and pay them, unless requested otherwise. Not all creators require payment, some may only ask that you thank them or credit them at the place where the image is used. However, copyright infringements happen every day, so it is important to stay on top of protecting your copyright but also to ensure you are not breaching others copyright.

If you have an original idea or piece of creative work, it is a potential asset and could end up having considerable value in the future, both to yourself and to future generations as part of your legacy, when passed down as part of an estate. If someone infringes your copyright, you have legal grounds to pursue the guilty party to either pay for a license, or compensate you for any financial loss you may have incurred. Copyrighted works that attract the interests of other parties may also be licenced to make sure the originators benefit financially benefit from their use.

Famous copyright cases


There are many famous copyright cases – Apple versus Microsoft, Dyson versus Hoover and numerous music copyright cases. In the 1970’s Star Wars vs Battlestar Galactica saw 20th Century Fox sue Universal Studios for copyright infringement, claiming it had stolen thirty four ideas from Star Wars, including a character named Skyler and wanting to use ‘Star Worlds’ as the name for the show. More recently, Meghan Markle won her copyright claim against the owners of the Mail on Sunday after they published a personal letter she wrote to her father. A High Court Judge ruled in her favour after deciding the publication of large parts of the handwritten letter was ‘manifestly excessive and unlawful.’

Then there is the tale of British photographer David Slater, who in 2011, travelled to Indonesia, to take photos of local wildlife. Unable to get the shot he wanted of some monkeys, he placed his camera on a tripod as the monkeys were curious about the equipment. One monkey in particular was drawn to the reflection of the lens and went on to take a few ‘selfies.’ Mr Slater sent the images to his agent, who circulated them to a number of news sources and the photos were subsequently published by the Daily Mail. However, in 2014, a dispute between Mr Slater and Wikipedia began when Wikipedia uploaded the pictures and tagged them as being in the public domain, reasoning monkeys cannot own copyright.

In September 2015, the campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sued Mr Slater in a California court on behalf of the monkey (named Naruto in the suit) to assert copyright over the picture, claiming the selfie ‘resulted from a series of purposeful and voluntary actions by Naruto, unaided by Mr Slater, resulting in original works of authorship not by Mr Slater, but by Naruto.’ In January 2016, the trial judge dismissed the action on the basis that even if Naruto had taken the pictures by ‘independent, autonomous action’ the suit could not continue as animals do not have standing in a court of law and therefore cannot sue for copyright infringement. However, this did not stop PETA appealing the dismissal. The parties later reached a settlement out of court. 

Exceptions

There are exceptions to copyright law, including use for noncommercial research and private study; text and data mining (the use of automated analytical techniques to analyse text and data for patterns, trends and other useful information for non-commercial research); criticism, review and reporting current events; teaching; helping people with disabilities and parody, caricature and pastiche (permits people to use limited amounts of copyrighted material without the owner’s permission for the purpose of parody, caricature or pastiche). As such, you should always check whether someone’s use of your work is permitted before trying to stop them. However, certain exceptions only apply if the use of the work is ‘fair dealing’, a legal term used to establish whether a use of copyright material is lawful or whether it infringes copyright. There is no statutory definition of fair dealing, rather, the question to be asked is how would a fair-minded and honest person have dealt with the work?

It is also important to be aware that media, such as DVDs and e-books, are often protected by Technological Protection Measures (TPMs) (also known as copy protection measures or DRM) which prevent unauthorised access or copying. EU and UK law protects the right of copyright owners to use TPMs to protect their works, and circumvention of such technology is illegal.

Another exception are Creative Commons licenses which enable creators the freedom to decide exactly how people may use their work and for what purpose, providing a way for them to grant copyright permissions to their creative work, so providing a pool of content that can be copied, distributed, edited, remixed and built upon, all within the boundaries of copyright law.

In addition, some photo providers such as Getty images and Historic England now allow their images to be embedded on non-commercial external websites. Code can be copied and pasted into a web page and the image will appear together with a title, the author name and clearly states from where the image was obtained, so allowing images to be shared on social media, blogs and websites for free, protecting content creators’ ability to earn through commercial licensing but providing opportunities for rich visual storytelling too.

Empty room with drums, keyboard and microphone.
Photo by John Matychuk.

Need help finding images you can legally use? Here is some useful information to guide you through the process.

  • Royalty-free images: in return for an initial licence fee, these are available for nearly unlimited commercial use, meaning you can use the images virtually anywhere, as long as you comply with the terms of the licence agreement
  • Stock images: these are images made available for licence by paying a fee to both the originator and the stock agency managing them, while the originator retains the copyright of their work
  • Editorial images: these are licensable images but with restrictions on use, such as limitations on size, placement, duration of use and geographic distribution – all images must be used in an ‘editorial’ manner, meaning the usage must relate to events that are newsworthy or of public interest
Photos hanging on a line.
Photo by Raj Rana.

Not sure where to start your image search

There are a number of websites that offer free images also but always remember to check the terms as these vary between websites and creators.

Wikipedia is also a good source for images that are in the public domain and therefore not subject to copyright.

Sources

The UK Copyright Services

Further information

Bee.

© Toni Louise Abram at Izzy Wizzy. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Canva

I have recently been teaching myself how to use Canva, an online design and publishing tool with a mission to empower everyone in the world to design anything and publish anywhere. I have no graphic design experience and my knowledge of Photoshop is sparse (I can crop and resize images) which is frustrating as my head is always brimming with ideas, so I was excited to see what I could create with it. 

Graphic design is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as ‘the art or skill of combining text and pictures in advertisements, magazines and books’, while the Online Etymology dictionary advises the word graphic comes from the Latin word graphicus, meaning picturesque and from the the Greek word graphikos meaning ‘of or for writing, belonging to drawing, picturesque.’

Canva houses thousands of free templates for easy graphic design and the drag and drop interface allows users to customise these by uploading their own images, dropping them into the template and saving the file to your computer. There is a lot of choice and it is a bit like falling down the rabbit hole. Template categories include posters, presentations, flyers, cards, business cards, resumes, invitations, letterheads, newsletters and much more.

Firstly I wanted to design a logo and a banner image for the Izzy Wizzy website and to use this across social media too. One of the fabulous things about Canva is once you have designed your image, you can save it in different formats for use in different places, so rather than having to mess around re-sizing your image for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on, Canva does it for you in seconds.

I chose the minimal and bold monogram logo below.

Canva template.

I then adapted this, changing the text and dropping a sunflower image into the template to create my banner image.

Having created my logo and banner images I was feeling braver, so I decided to create a series of individual images for use on social media to promote the services I provide too. The images feature the sunflower and bee that appear on the Izzy Wizzy website and use the same fonts for consistent branding. In addition they feature a positive or humorous message, together with the website address.

It took me some time to get my head around how things worked but I had a lot of fun playing. I am very happy with the results and now feel confident about using Canva again to produce other things for myself and clients.

Further information

Bee.

© Toni Louise Abram at Izzy Wizzy. All Rights Reserved.

The lost art of typewriting

Recently while reviewing a document I had written, Microsoft Word admonished me with the warning ‘only one space between words is better’. Oh no, I thought, not you too. The issue had come up in an office I worked in a few years earlier, with younger members of the team happy to inform me what I was doing wrong. The world it would seem had changed as the typewriter gave way to the computer. Type ‘one space or two after a full stop’ into a search engine and you will see the debate that is raging.

I learned to type in high school, in the 1980’s on a manual typewriter. I can still remember the click clack hammering sound of the keys being struck, the sound of the carriage return lever being hit when I needed to start a new line, the bell as the roller returned to the left hand margin and the sound of the roller as it turned moving the paper up out of the machine. Electric typewriters came along not long afterwards (although my first exams were taken on manual typewriters) and computers came fast on their heels.

History

In the 1860s, Christopher Latham Sholes, an amateur inventor in Milwaukee invented the first typewriter, which he developed with Samuel Soulé, James Densmore and Carlos Glidden and first patented in 1868. Resembling a piano, it was originally built with an alphabetical arrangement of 28 keys, so everyone would know where to find them. In 1878 US Patent Number 207,559 marked the first documented appearance of the QWERTY layout and a deal with gun maker Remington, proved to be a huge success.

Remington typewriter advertisement pre 1900.

By 1890, there were more than 100,000 QWERTY based Remington produced typewriters in use across the country and in 1893 when the five largest typewriter manufacturers – Remington, Caligraph, Yost, Densmore and Smith-Premier merged to form the Union Typewriter Company, they  agreed to adopt QWERTY as the design we know today.  However, the monospace type of a manual typewriter did not create a sufficient visual space between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next, so users needed to use two spaces in order that sentences did not run into one another. Today with proportional fonts, only one space is necessary to create the necessary separation but for those of us who had it drilled into us that two spaces should always be used after a full stop, it a hard habit to break. 

A learned skill

If you wanted to work in an office, typewriting was a skill that had to be learned and for which exams were sat and qualifications achieved. Typewriters were complex pieces of machinery as can be seen in the illustration below. The strange unfamiliar arrangement of the keys was the first of many things I had to learn before I could begin typing, such as how to insert a sheet of paper, how to wind the roller to bring the paper in and out of the machine, how to adjust the paper if it wasn’t straight and how to hold the paper in place with a ruled metal bar which was also used for setting margins and tabs. 

Diagram showing Remington typewriter parts. 

As my training progressed, I learned to touch type by typing the same letters over and over, for example asdsd, fadsf, dfsaf, so I would learn where the keys were without looking, before progressing to ‘the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’. I was taught how to layout letters correctly, sometimes with full punctuation (that is using commas within dates and addresses); how to type envelopes and labels and I learned that the word ‘stet’ next to words that had been crossed through or changed, meant the writer wanted me to ignore the alteration – the word means ‘let it stand’. If my letter was to have an enclosure, the letters Enc needed to be added to the bottom of the letter.

Example of a letter using full punctuation.

Then there was carbon paper, thin paper coated with ink which was used for making duplicate copies of a  document. So for example you may be asked to produce a letter with two carbon copies, say an office copy and a copy for another recipient and would have to construct a sandwich made of paper and carbon paper which then needed to be fed into the typewriter. Copy letters needed to have the letters  CC and the name of the recipient inserted at the end of the letter, so that everyone could see who received a copy of that letter. However, if you wanted copies of a letter to be sent without everyone knowing who had received it, you had to instead handwrite the letters BCC, which stood for blind carbon copy, along with the name of the recipient on the copy letter only (and also remember to put the right letter in the right envelope). Speed tests were undertaken too, as typing exams were timed, so you needed to be able to produce your work in the allocated time when you came to sit your exam. I remember feeling terrifically proud of mine, which were signed by my typing teacher and my headmaster.

Speed test certificate.

There was one font size and font style but no way to emphasise text in bold or italics. The typewriter ribbon, black on the top half, red on the bottom half, allowed the typist to type in one of the two colours, depending on how the machine was set. The ribbon also needed to be changed regularly by reaching into the top of the machine, removing the ribbon spool and replacing it with a new one.  Underlining if required was done by repeatedly hitting the underline key the length and distance of the text that needed underlining. Tables were created in a similar manner and rows and columns of figures had to be lined up correctly and evenly spaced. It was slow, methodical, detailed work and any mistakes had to be corrected manually, using a typewriter pencil, tippex liquid or tippex paper. However, presentation was of the utmost importance, so if errors could not be corrected neatly, you would need to start over with your document. 

Example of an instruction to type a letter.

Examinations

I remember undertaking many practice papers in preparation for my exams and anxiously waiting my results. RSA and Pitman were the typewriting qualification boards and they had strict rules that needed to be adhered to if you wanted to pass your exams, meaning that attention to detail was a must. Two spaces after a full stop or a colon and one after a comma or semi colon were essential and you lost marks if you failed to do this.

RSA exams were timed and assessed in three areas – production (completing the work in the given time), accuracy and presentation. Failing in one area meant you failed the whole exam. Candidates could achieve RSA qualifications at three levels – elementary level (RSA one), intermediate level (RSA two) and advanced level (RSA three).

Instruction to type a letter.

Today I am the proud holder of RSA qualifications at levels one, two and three, an RSA elementary qualification in audio typing, Pitman advanced and elementary qualifications, along with Computer Literacy and Information Technology (CLAIT) and European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) qualifications. Then I learned how to create and update websites too, which I have now done for over 15 years. And I feel proud, not only for me but for those who went before me, doing it the hard way, learning their craft before computers ruled the world and then, as we entered the digital age, learning new skills and ways of doing things. 

So, if you feel annoyed when seeing two spaces after a full stop, just for a moment consider how important it actually is. And remember, there was a time when two spaces were the standard and the only way to do things. Typing wasn’t always as easy as it is today. And finally, you never know what changes may happen in your own lifetime, so maybe take a moment to think before you dismiss someone’s way of doing things out of hand. Be kind to those who may do things differently to you, as one day, you may find yourself in their shoes.

Note

Microsoft Word now enables users to change document spacing. If like me you find two spaces a hard habit to break but need to work to a house style, select editor on your toolbar, then ‘punctuation conventions’ and ‘one space’. Further information can also be found in help by typing ‘change the spacing between text.’

Sources

Further information

Bee.

© Toni Louise Abram at Izzy Wizzy. All Rights Reserved.