A Business History of the Telephone Answering Machine

Today, voice mail is so well integrated with telephone service that we barely remember a time when it was a separate technology, a box that sat next to the telephone (at a time when a “telephone” was something that sat on a table, attached to the wall with a cord). And before that, there was a time when the un-attended telephone simply went unanswered. In fact, for most of the history of the telephone, answering it (either in person or electronically) was optional. So from a historical perspective, we need to know why demand for automatic answering equipment appeared. Who wanted it, and why?

Apparently, everyone wanted a way to answer the phone when they could not (or did nto want to) do it themselves, and it was apparent right from the start. Even in the early days of the telephone, early users sought such a device, and when they could not find it they often hired someone to take calls.

Edison recognized the need right away, developing a technology designed for telephone recording in 1877, merely months later than the announcement of the telephone itself in 1876. (Unfortunately, his first telephone recorder did not work, but fortunately it could be used for other purposes. He called it the “phonograph.”) The subsequent history of the answering machine, explored in the following pages, traces the development of equipment but focuses on the “business” history of the technology; especially the way it met with great resistance from AT&T in the U.S. Those more interested in the details of the machines themselves should also visit my History of Answering Machine Technology pages.

Edison’s Telephone Recorder

In 1878, Shortly after inventing his phonograph, Thomas Edison created a list of possible uses for it. Number ten read: “Connection with the telephone, so as take that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.” Edison later discovered that it was much more difficult to record telephone signals on tin foil than he first thought, and turned to the recording of the voice directly from the air. When the first phonographs actually came to market, that’s what they were designed to do. However, other inventors pursued the idea of telephone recording, especially after Edison introduced the phonograph in the late 1880s as a desktop business machine. The telephone was also mainly a business machine at the time, and the phonograph’s utility as a call recorder seemed obvious. However, even though wax cylinders had been substituted for the original tin foil, the phonograph and its imitators still were not sensitive enough to record a call very well.

The Telegraphone

Then around 1900, the Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen patented the telegraphone, a device to record a telephone signal on a steel wire or tape. Although it was far from perfect, tests made at the time indicated that it was capable of recording telephone calls pretty well–or at least local calls. He later designed a model that could automatically answer the telephone and record a message. The true telephone answering machine was thus born. Poulsen transferred the manufacturing rights to various companies, including the American Telegraphone company. Unfortunately, none of the licensees was able to make much of a go of it. The telegraphone remained a curiosity until the expiration of Poulsen’s patents around the time of World War I.

A Second Try

Thomas A. Edison, Inc. “Telediphone”

Edison, not to be outdone, in 1914 announced the Telescribe, a simple device to record telephone conversations using wax cylinders. The Telescribe was based on a design similar to the current generation of Edison dictation machines. It sold in small numbers before being replaced by a much improved Edison telephone recorder called the Telediphone.

By the 1920s, there were two very different attitudes among what we would today call telephone service providers in Europe versus the United States. In Europe, various inventors and companies seemed enthusiastic about using telephone recorders and automatic answering machines, despite the ongoing technical problems. In the United States, AT&T; had by now consolidated its near-monopoly and had started excluding all forms of “foreign” equipment on its lines (“foreign” being defined as not made by Western Electric or an approved partner)

Inventors like Truman Stevens and others introduced and patented improved automatic answering machines in the U.S., but AT&T; did little to encourage them. As phonograph technology improved, so too did telephone recording. 1932 saw the introduction of a disc-based answering machine by the Loftin-White laboratories in New York (an engineering firm in the radio industry).

Telephone Recording Finds a Market–Of Sorts. . .

The Edision “Telescribe”

There were niche markets to be served. Some organizations ran their own private telephone or telegraph systems, and they were allowed to use non-AT&T; equipment if they desired. In 1926, for example, the Columbia company, which manufactured Dictaphone office dictation equipment, announced its Telecord, an electronic telephone recorder (though still using wax cylinders). Similarly, Thomas A. Edison, Inc. introduced its Telediphone for the same purpose. AT&T; evaluated these devices and received requests from customers to use them, but decided not to allow ordinary consumers to install them on its public network (they could still be used on the small number of non-AT&T systems)

Demand for telephone recording grew–some companies and individuals went so far as to write to AT&T to ask why such equipment was not available. By 1930, AT&T later modified its rules, allowing the use of a Telecord in conjunction with a Private Branch Exchange–a sort of small switchboard installed in office buildings. However, the way the machine could be use was quite restricted, and it was expensive as well. It did not prove popular with customers.

The Scene in Europe

Ipsophon internal workings

Things were moving along more rapidly in Europe. A Swiss company in 1936 introduced a commercially successful answering machine called the Ipsophon, which recorded sound magnetically on steel tape. Ipsophons were intended to be used by large offices or in the central offices of the telephone companies themselves. This was not a machine for the individual or the home–it was much too expensive. But the function was similar. When users wanted to access their messages, they dialed in to the machine or central office and retrieved their calls using a crude form of voice recognition (based on the user whistling or speaking a combination of tones). The Ipsophon survived World War II and was marketed in the U.S. in 1946, but never saw much use there.

AT&T’s Response

Back in the U.S., AT&T; was aware of the emerging demand for telephone recorders, but looked for alternatives. Anticipating a future public demand for answering machines, AT&T; in 1936 made available a technology that would allow a customer (usually a small business) to “forward” incoming calls to a distant switchboard. The telephone company then leased special switchboards to private answering services, where live operators could take the calls and write down any messages. Live answering services were expensive for the consumer but relied on conventional technology, and were thus reliable and efficient. They still exist today and are used by doctors and others.

Ad for an Answering Service

However, the clever engineers at AT&T’s Bell Telephone Labs were cooking up something different. Bell Labs had been involved in sound recording technology since the early 1920s, and had developed both disc and motion picture sound recording devices, which had been widely adopted in Hollywood studios and the record industry. There were also some devices built by AT&T; that used pre-recorded announcements on motion picture film (although the public never really encountered them). Beside phonograph and optical recording, the other known form of sound recording was magnetic, yet there had been no practical application of it since the ill-fated telegraphone. Bell Labs engineers saw immediately that the advantage of magnetic recording was the ability to instantly erase and re-record messages. They constructed several forms of tape recorders (using a narrow, steel tape), and eventually even a relatively small, self-contained automatic answering machine. AT&T; executives greeted this innovation with horror, claiming that if members of the public could record calls easily, the sense of privacy in telephone communication would be lost, and business would decline. The answering machine was officially denounced, and for a number of years the use of answering machines made by other companies was specifically forbidden by AT&T; and the Federal Communications Commission which regulated the company. Bell Labs eventually discovered a small market for its tape recorders, but the development of steel tape technology was allowed to languish.

Non-AT&T Competitors

Ansaphone

With the advent of transistor electronics and greater competition, the base cost of the machine itself was beginning to drop. In 1958 ITT introduced its Code-a-Phone business answering machine, and 1961 offered a low-price unit for small businesses and individuals. Code-a-Phones sold well in those areas of the United States served by independent telephone companies–a small percentage of the market, indeed, but still a large number of customers. Similar small, lower-cost machines were beginning to emerge as well. The Ansaphone, for example, appeared in 1960. This machine was later distributed by Dictaphone Corp. 1962 Robosonics Inc. of New York introduced the Robosonic Secretary in 1962, which was another inexpensive tape-based machine, as was the company’s 1963 Record-O-Phone, which featured remote message retrieval using a whistle called the Telekey.

European developments were by this time moving more slowly. There were still central-office call recorders in use, and Telefunken introduced a small automatic answering machine in 1966. However, by the mid -1960s the size of the U.S. market for answering machines was now probably larger than in Europe.

Answering Machines in the 70s

The 1970s marked the beginning of a new era in answering machine history. AT&T;, which had been repeatedly accused of exploiting its monopoly on American telephone service, found itself in the throes of yet another antitrust suit. Popular resentment against “the phone company” or “Ma Bell” as it was called reached a new high. When inexpensive, imported telephones became available in the late 1960s, many consumers installed them with or without their local telephone company’s knowledge, and despite regulations forbidding them.

At about the same time, the telephone answering machine was becoming less expensive and more convenient to use because of the appearance of inexpensive microelectronics. One of the first products oriented toward the home consumer was the PhoneMate, introduced in 1971, which featured cheap, consumer-grade construction. By mid-decade, answering machines cost only $125-600– the low cost machines in other words costing less to buy new than to rent for a year or so. Sales began to grow, reaching 400,000 units in 1978.

The dam broke in the 1980s, when AT&T divested itself of the local operating companies. While a few companies tried to maintain their equipment rental income, most abandoned the telephone and answering machine business to the consumer electronics firms. Truly cheap (sometimes less than $25) answering machines flooded into the market, provided almost exclusively by Asian firms (or made by them and sold under U.S. trade names). By 1982, the number of answering machines sold had already reached 800,000.

The Triumph of the Machine

Since the 1980s, the number of households with answering machines leveled off at about 50% in the United States. With the advent of the widespread use of cell phones in the 1980s in Europe and Asia, and in the 1990s in the U.S., the manufacture of answering machines went into decline. Voicemail, the service that has largely replaced the stand-alone answering machine, was pioneered in the 1970s, as telephone transmission and switching equipment was being replaced by new digital designs that offered more customer features. The “digital revolution” briefly touched conventional answering machines, as the familiar tape cartridge (which had shrunk over the course of the 1980s from standar cassettes to microcassettes) disappeared, replaced by semiconductor memory. By the early 1990s, U.S. telephone service providers were offering customers inexpensive, centralized voice mail via their home telephones, a service which is widely used today. Additionally, nearly every cell phone provider offered voicemail as a “standard feature” from the early 1990s on. Today, ownership of the answering machine has become a sign of technological backwardness, and of low social status. Hardly a fitting end for a product that struggled so long to make its way into our lives.

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