Many, many years ago I had a summer job in the research and development arm of IBM. It may seem very unlikely today but back then IBM was known solely as an all-male organization where you wore only white shirts, black ties, wing-tip shoes and all-blue or all-black suits. Those of us in R & D were considered wildly outré because we were allowed to wear patterned ties, loafers and sport jackets. I know this is hard to absorb so please take a moment, sit quietly, take deep breaths and react calmly.
I was joined by a motley crew consisting of a chemist, an electrical engineer and two lab-technicians who rebelled, in a modest way, to the straight-jacketed marine-sergeant like rules that the company imposed on us. For example, the chemist’s office was in a noisy corridor and mine was in a quiet cul-de-sac. Since my job was temporary, he asked if he could switch his office with mine. I did not care but the Oberfuhrer office manager objected vehemently. My office was too small, according to the official IBM manual on office sizes, for the chemist’s pay grade. The chemist had no objection and I had no objection but this carried little weight with the office manager so we stayed put. It made the chemist furious and it was then that we found a way to relieve the oddities and irregularities of our work environment:
The Panic Button!
Remember that this was way before personal computers, Photoshop, cell phone cameras or other conveniences. The lab technicians went to their workshop and created a panic button. They made the top of a semitransparent plastic with instructions. It did, in fact look remarkably like today’s Office Depot Easy Button except that it was white instead of red:
We added a switch, a light, scribed the appropriate symbol on the underside of the plastic, mounted it on the nearest wall, stood back and waited for the first case of panic relief. We didn’t have to wait long.
Every week we crammed into our boss’ office to review the work we were doing. Our boss – known affectionately as “Shaky” because he daily smoked about a million cigarettes and drank about a million cups of coffee with the resulting shakes – would review our fruitless efforts to create a new substance that would improve the performance of computers worldwide. Each week we failed; were told to repeat the same experiments and come back in a week with, supposedly, better results. The repetitive and useless endeavor began to get to the electrical engineer whose frustration started to boil over.
Quick, we said, push the Panic Button!
Yes I know it was childish and tame by today’s standards. It also didn’t make sense. Why would you push a Panic Button to relieve stress? But it worked: It amused us and annoyed the up-tight, straight-laced guys in white shirts, black ties and dark suits. We could all use a Panic button from time to time. In the words of George Ade, “A good jolly is worth what you pay for it.”