Radio review: Lucy Kellaway's History of Office Life - Not safe for work... women and phones, apparently


Chris Maume
Saturday 27 July 2013 18:37
Voice of a generation: Lucy Hawking looks at the legacy of speech synthesis
Voice of a generation: Lucy Hawking looks at the legacy of speech synthesis

Janet Hogarth graduated with a First in philosophy from Oxford in the 1890s and became the Bank of England's first female employee. She was given the task of counting cancelled bank notes – a job which entailed six months' training (learning to count, presumably). She eventually moved on, she wrote, "dying of boredom", and worked on Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

As Lucy Kellaway found out in Thursday's edition of her terrific 10-part History of Office Life, when more women followed Hogarth to Threadneedle Street (paid less, they were simply an economy measure), they had a different entrance, working hours and meal times staggered with the men's, and worked behind screens lest they disturb the excitable menfolk.

On Friday, Kellaway took a brisk romp through office equipment, and found that the telephone was initially considered as much of a nuisance as the dolly birds: Schroders bank, for example, refused to go in the directory for fear that incoming calls would distract the workers. William Preece, the chief engineer of the Post Office, dismissed the new-fangled instrument as "a substitute for servants … I have one in my office, but more for show. If I want to send a message, I employ a boy to take it." If I want to send a message, I employ a boy to tweet it.

I remember in the mid-Nineties when the first voice-synthesising software became available in my office. Hilarious, we all thought. But vital for some. In Klatt's Last Tapes (Radio 4, Friday ****) the writer Lucy Hawking, Stephen's daughter, explored the history of voice-synths, in particular the pioneering work of Dennis Klatt.

She met Klatt's daughter, Dr Laura Fine, who played her the voices her father had put together using himself and his family as raw material. He'd given them names – Perfect Paul (Dennis), Beautiful Betty (his wife) and Kit the Kid (Laura). "I have to tell you," said Hawking, "that Perfect Paul sounds just like my dad ... So that means my father is talking with your father's voice." It seemed an emotional moment for both of them. Klatt died of thyroid cancer aged 50, having left a huge legacy. "I had never really thought before," said Fine, "that my father's voice lives on."

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