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This past week marked the anniversaries of two important historical events. One was, I would say, entirely backward looking and the other provided a glimpse into the future.

On August 13, 1961 Berlin was divided by the commencement of construction of the Berlin Wall. It’s been 50 years since that day but, for all the changes that have since taken place across Europe, it might as well have been 500 years ago.

As a result of the Allies forces’ defeat of Germany in 1945, and the race between western and Soviet troops to reach Berlin, that city was initially divided into four occupation sectors. Before long, Britain, the United States and France merged their sectors as a result of Soviet intransigence on reconstruction, leaving the Soviets on their own.

The combined western allied sector ultimately became West Berlin, a virtual island surrounded by East Germany. That setting permitted the Soviets to implement a blockade in 1948, resulting in a number of allied countries – including Canada – participating in the Berlin airlift to supply the western sector with food and other supplies.

The Berlin Wall was a dominating concrete obstacle, marked with guard towers and backed on the Soviet side by a wide swath of bare ground dubbed by some as the “death strip”. Some fences are erected largely to keep others out but, like a prison, this one served primarily to keep the citizens of East Germany in.

Residents of Berlin saw their city divided in two almost overnight. Thousands lost their homes in the course of the border being established and secured. And, if your job happened to be located across town – on the other side of the border – well, let’s say you had a bigger problem on your hands than calling in late.

Hundreds of easterners were either captured or killed in their attempts to cross the Wall into the free west. It was, both literally and figuratively, the heart of the “Iron Curtain” separating the communist east from the democratic west.

Almost precisely thirty years later, with the Berlin Wall chipped away into history, a global revolution having nothing to do with politics was born. That was the result of the commercial release, on August 12, 1981 of the IBM Personal Computer.

Remember that original desktop PC model? It was a bland taupe colour, laid flat on your desk (taking up most of your desktop) with a tiny monochrome monitor sitting atop and, if my recollection is accurate, it didn’t really do all that much.

The original PC - model 5150 - wasn’t the first computer on the market (remember the Commodore PET, the Atari and the Radio Shack TRS80?) but, armed with the critical letters “IBM” on its face, the original PC had instant credibility in the still fledgling market.

The success of the IBM PC meant that it soon became the industry standard. In the office setting, I think it may be fair to say that is still the case today notwithstanding the territory gained by Apple’s desktop offerings in recent years.

The original PC did not have a standard hard drive but could be equipped with up to two 5.25” floppy drives (giving birth to all manner of off-colour jokes based on the word “floppy” – “Phil wishes he had a hard drive but he’s stuck with a floppy disk”, etc.). With a retrofitted power supply increase, a hard drive could be added.

The stripped down PC originally sold for $1,565 (USD) but came with no floppy drives, no hard drive, 16kB of RAM (roughly enough to capture your mom’s lasagna recipe), and no monitor. One wonders what possible use could be made of such a device – boat anchor, possibly. Doubling the price produced a unit with 64 kB of RAM, one floppy drive and a monitor – a wealth of processing power!

The age of desktop computers came with many promises, one of which was the utopian vision of the paperless office. I can tell you, with confidence, that a visit to any lawyer’s office today will reveal ten times as much printed material per file than was the case in 1981.

Today, the so-called “modern office” is almost entirely dependent upon individual computers. Think that your office is the exception? I invite you to take a walk around your workplace the next time the power goes out or your local area network crashes - I’ll bet what you’ll find is a whole lot of people feeling so helpless that work of any discernible nature stops entirely while they check their smartphones for messages.

Who says August is boring? I give you August 12th and 13th – dates of supreme historical and future importance for the world and for the workplace.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.