History of The Dictation Equipment Industry

Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph in 1877, but after demonstrating it he had moved on to other projects, most notably his system of electric lighting. Alexander Graham Bell, Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter picked up the ball a few years later, and developed an improved version of the phonograph, naming it the graphophone. Instead of tinfoil wrapped around a cylinder, the graphophone used a cylinder made of wax, which resulted in better recordings.

John Milton portrayed during dictation

Edison wasn’t too pleased when he found out, and in 1878 he hastily invented an “improved phonograph,” which incorporated many features that were similar to the graphophone. The two machines, phonograph and graphophone, were offered for sale in the late 1870s as a mechanical replacement for the stenographer. Stenography had been used for years in business and government, and occasionally by professional writers. It was expensive to employ a stenographer, but justified where accuracy was important, such as in transcripts of congressional or parliamentary debates. Shorthand, a method of high-speed writing, was already well-established for this purpose by the middle of the 19th century. It allowed stenographers to write quickly enough to keep up with a conversation. In fact, the word “phonography” was already in use as a synonym for stenography.

Edison and Columbia Establish the Business

The early sales and rentals of phonographs and graphophones were pretty dismal, despite a great deal of enthusiasm for the technology. Amid much patent bickering, licensing, and corporate maneuvering, a network of regional companies authorized to make and/or service sound recorders emerged in the United States. By 1900 these companies were already struggling. At about this time they discovered the entertainment uses of the phonograph. In the early 20th century, the entertainment phonograph industry would explode. But the phonograph as a business machine remained, its fortunes determined largely by just two firms. The first was the descendant of the company that Bell and Tainter formed in the District of Columbia to market the graphophone. Eventually, this became the Columbia Graphophone Co. Edison’s Improved Phonograph became the basis of the business recorder made by Thomas A. Edison Inc. By about 1907, Columbia was calling its product the Dictaphone. Edison eventually renamed his product Ediphone. Dictaphones and Ediphones were nearly indistinguishable, and could use each other’s cylinders. The market was of course much smaller than that for the entertainment phonograph, but because of the high initial cost of the business recorder and the constant need for supplies and repairs, the business was profitable.

Maturation of a System: 1910-1930

The Ediphone and Dictaphone line was redesigned after 1910 and sold as part of an office machine “system.” Now, instead of simply substituting for stenography, the dictation system improved the flow of correspondence creation. An important element of this new system was the adoption of the typewriter, which was now to be used to translate the recordings into letters quickly. Every aspect of dictation machine use was carefully described by the manufacturers to appeal to advocates of Scientific Office Management– a turn-of-the-century efficiency fad that emphasized office “mechanization.” The details of the new system were intended to appeal to the new realities of the office, especially the transition from relatively high-wage male clerical workers to low-wage women clerical workers and larger, centralized business offices with a more rigorously enforced set of work procedures.

The War Years

Soundscriber
Soundscriber

With the coming of World War II, the U.S. government became a large customer for dictation equipment. The expansion of the market encouraged the entrance of competitors for the first time since the 1880s. Soundscriber, one of these new firms, and the Gray Manufacturing Company, an older maker of telephone equipment, both begin selling dictation machines that use a new type of medium– the vinyl disk. For a brief time, both Dictaphone and Edison were in the embarrassing position of holding on to a medium that suddenly looked antiquated. Both were still making dictation machines that used the same wax cylinder recording medium that had been introduced in the 1880s (although the old “acoustic” recording process had been replaced with real microphones and electronic amplifiers in the 1930s). Both companies would make cylinder recorders until about 1950, and would continue to service cylinder machines for many more years. Dictaphone, however, was preparing for change. During the war, it began to manufacture a new type of product using a plastic belt instead of a wax cylinder. This product, sold only to the military for the duration of the conflict, allowed Dictaphone to attain a stronger position in the postwar market.

Headline

Dictaphone in 1947 introduced the Time Master dictation machine. This is the first Dictaphone device to use the new plastic belt instead of a wax cylinder. These “Dictabelt” machines still used a phonographic recording process, and they were not re-usable. Edison countered with the Voicewriter, which used a vinyl disk. Meanwhile, the Soundscriber and the Gray Audograph captured a sizable chunk of the market, much of it at Edison’s expense. Meanwhile, important new technologies appeared, particularly magnetic tape and wire recording. The Peirce wire recorder was one of the first wire recorder dictation machines to appear after 1945.

The Format Problem

The U.S. market for dictation equipment grew but competition became fierce in the 1950s. Electronics and the new media, particularly magnetic recording, made it possible for companies to offer new kinds of systems. Now, for example, the telephone could be used to “dial up” a central office dictator/transcriber. Typists accessed the machine remotely. The cost savings of these systems attracted many businesses that had resisted office dictation earlier.

Postwar Dictaphone with its “Dictabelts”

Dictation equipment manufacturers targeted users at the very top of the corporate hierarchy– upper managers and executives–in part because they hoped that if they could convert the executives the rest of the organization would follow. But executives as a group were notorious for refusing to use the dictation machine. The Big Guys preferred to dictate to a personal secretary–who was very often an attractive young women. Execs also had the power to refuse to use technologies they didn’t like–and many of them didn’t like dictation machines. Many admitted to having “mike fright,” when the machine was turned on, or they preferred making notes in longhand and then dictating to their personal secretaries. But this was an expensive way to write letters, and dictation equipment marketers continued to remind them of this. However, there were some executives who had just the opposite attitude. These enthusiastic users created demand for a new type of business recorder that came along in the 1950s–the portable. In a day when “portable electronics” was virtually an unknown concept, the portable tape or wire recorder was to some the ultimate cool corporate accessory. Like laptops and cell phones in the 90s, a flashy, ultra-miniaturized recorder, bearing the all important “Transistorized” label, became something of an execu-fad. But like other dictation machines, user’s attitudes seemed to gravitate toward the poles– they either loved them or hated them. And it seemed like the majority of people felt self-conscious doing something like sitting on an airplane, talking into a little box. Nevertheless, a dozen or so miniaturized voice recorders appeared in the 1950s and early 1960s. Mohawk Business Machines (pictured below) was one of the pioneers in the early 1950s, but the real success stories were the recorders imported from Germany, Scandinavia, and Japan, like the “Minifon.”

The 1970s and the Decline of Dictation

Beginning of the End From the 1950s through the 1970s, the mini recorder appeared in numerous advertisements, movies, and TV shows as a standard accessory for the successful businessman type. Dictaphone offered a “Travel-Master” Dictabelt recorder that ran on rechargeable batteries in the early 1950s, and Soundscriber also made a battery operated vinyl disk recorder. But the really successful products used magnetic tape.

Early Philips/Norelco Dictation Machine

The 1960s saw the last big surge in interest in dictation equipment, but also the entrance of non-U.S. firms to the American market. Having recovered their consumer electronics manufacturing capability in the 1950s, German, English, and Scandinavian firms entered the U.S. market with low cost office recorders. While most of them lacked the features of the traditional equipment, they appealed to many smaller offices where there was no need for typing pools and standardization of equipment. The miniature, portable recorder also continued to evolve, and an important development was the standardization of the recording medium. The Philips company of the Netherlands, which already had a line of dictation equipment, also introduced a “general purpose” tape cartridge introduced in 1962, which they called the Compact Cassette. It was not intended to compete with their dictation equipment, but many manufacturers of dictation machines adopted it.

Lanier Voicewriter 650 desk set

Japanese companies were particularly aggressive in adopting the Philips cassette standard and its successor, the microcassette, as the basis of miniature business recorders. A Dictaphone ad from the 1970s (pictured below) illustrates the shrinking of portable dictation devices and the continuing “executive dictating on the go” theme touted by manufacturers. Note the way men are still portrayed as the ones who make recordings.

An important development of the 1970s was the attempt to merge computers and dictation equipment. In 1960, a new company entered the market– the computer giant IBM. The company purchased the Peirce Wire Recorder company, which had been working on a new magnetic belt recorder to replace its wire recording equipment. IBM had a large and powerful sales and service organization, and soon took about half the U.S. market.

While the computer would have a huge impact on the dictation machine, it was not what anyone expected. Computers had been used by companies since the 1950s and they were becoming more and more important in daily operations. Early on, large companies installed computers for billing, accounting, and similar data processing jobs. Then, IBM and others introduced the concept of “word processing,” which automated routing typing operations. IBM’s engineers tried to make dictation equipment the “input” for word processing equipment, even speculating that voice recognition systems could replace much of the letter-writing process. But the real effect of word processing was to change the way that secretaries and letter-writers did their correspondence.

Technical problems have prevented voice recognition from replacing all typing, though the technology is improving. Word processing, however, virtually eliminated the large transcription pools and the use of the dictating machine for cranking out large volumes of letters. There went the major market for equipment. The remaining users were executives with private secretaries, but these had always been the most resistant customers. Ironically, with the coming of personal computers in the 1980s, the remaining users for dictation machines–and the remaining jobs for stenographers–both went into decline.

Dictation in the Digital Age

Today, dictation equipment survives in a few (but important) niche markets, notably medical dictation. Of the firms that dominated the U.S. market in the 1950s, Edison’s Voicewriter division, Dictaphone, Gray, Soundscriber, and Peirce, only Dictaphone remains. Dictaphone was acquired by Pitney Bowes in 1979, but spun off a few years ago. A local distributor of dictation equipment in Atlanta, Lanier, bought Edison, Gray, and Soundscriber (and another, Nye) in the early ’70s. However, these product lines were reduced to just one, the Edisette, and by the 1990s it too was gone. The desktop dictation machine has virtually disappeared. Those few who still prefer dictation (or are required to use it) usually use digital centralized systems, sometimes in conjunction with voice recognition software. There are still modern day versions of transcription pools, but very often these are located far from the dictators, linked to them by computers and telephone lines–this has become quite common in the medical profession.

Individuals sometimes use PC-based voice recognition software, but this is rarely used to dictate letters. Battery operated, analog portable microcassette recorders still sell in fairly large numbers, but they are no longer part of integrated office dictation systems. Most mangers and others who might have been light users of dictation equipment in past years now seem to be producing their own correspondence on the personal computer. When the PC began to catch on in offices in the 1980s, the need for both dictation equipment and its competitor, the stenographer, declined quickly. Today, they are both rarities in the office.

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