The executive toy was as much a part of the '70s as kipper ties and the three-day week. Now with fashion looking backwards, could its time have come again?
In the 1970s you had to have balls to be a manager. To be specific, you had to have Newton's Balls - or Newton's Cradles as they were sometimes coyly called in the executive gifts catalogues.
Of all the bright and shiny desk toys that set out to catch the eye of the bored boss, Newton's Balls were the brightest and shiniest - and the most successful.
No executive suite was complete without one of the contraptions which, as older readers will recall, consisted of a line of six chrome balls each separately suspended by chrome wires from a chrome frame. Not since the Cadillacs of the '50s had so many men been enthralled by so much chrome concentrated in so little space. Newton's Balls were masterpieces of chrome engineering, sadly, almost always manufactured in Germany.
Even when they were doing nothing they managed to gleam a hell of a lot. But when they moved they truly outshone themselves. The executive's operating instructions for Newton's Balls were admirably simple. Gently lift to the right the chrome ball at the right-hand end of the line of six chrome balls. Allow this chrome ball to swing back to hit the remaining line of five chrome balls. Watch and be amazed as, on contact, the swinging ball seems to come to a dead stop, while one ball, and one ball only, mysteriously detaches itself from the left end of an otherwise static pack.
Next, watch and be even more amazed as this second chrome ball swings to the left to just about the same height as the first chrome ball had been swung from - before it, in turn, swings back to the right to hit the remaining line of five chrome balls. Then watch (admittedly with a little less amazement) as, on contact, the swinging chrome ball ... well you've probably got the idea. Thrilling stuff, and the fun didn't stop there. You could try the same with two, three, four or - best of all - five chrome balls.
For some executives the excitement was in the balls that moved. But for many, especially those in middle management, the real fascination lay with the ones that stayed still. The balls in the middle did not seem to be doing anything, yet were nonetheless mysteriously capable of passing on the instruction for action somewhere farther down the line.
It all seemed so very right and proper, a demonstration of a law of management as immutable as one of those laws of physics that Newton had invented. Newton's Balls were part of the management style of the times, no less than the strangely bouffant hairstyles and kipper ties that you can still see peering out from ancient Annual Reports. It was a period when chief executives, looking like Elton John's drummer, advised shareholders that, yes, the three-day week had been something of a setback - but not to worry as the Government would soon be coming in to bail everybody out.
Now the more fashion-conscious of my readers may well be aware that we are currently being offered a return to the 1970s in the form of the Grunge Look, coming to a secretary near you sooner than you think. Welcome back platform soles, flared trousers and transparent cheesecloth shirts - for there is no escaping our most grievous errors which are destined to return to haunt us from time to time.
So is it time to search through the second-hand and antique shops, or rummage in the garage, and dig out a long discarded set of Newton's Balls, give them a quick polish and return them to pride of place on your office desk?
In short, is Grunge Management going to replace yesterday's oh-so-fuddy-duddy mission statements? Can we say farewell to that all-too-structured goals-and-milestones look and those absolutely tiny management numbers that barely covered the necessary functions? Can we look forward to lots of lovely flowing layers of management that are just right for those carefree days of summer when you want to take off when the mood hits you, without everybody noticing just who has gone missing?
Well, as is the case with all nostalgia fads, being cool is not just a question of repeating the past - you have to combine it with the present. Forget the chunky chromium numbers from Germany.
This year's hot desk accessory is a wafer-thin, matt black plastic PC from Singapore or Taiwan that has the sort of computer-power that was once used to land man on the moon.
Now, on all of these powerful executive computers you will find that there is a vital function called a screen saver which, in most fashion-conscious offices, is used to provide a version of moving wallpaper. Just ask your information technology department to get hold of the special screen saver program that provides a near 3-D emulation of a game called Newton's something or other. Go on, don't be shy. Remember, to be in the forefront of fashion sometimes takes ... a little courage.