Origins of the Answering Machine

The answering machine has been with us since the late 19th century, although it did not become popular until the 1980s. For a brief business history of the answering machine industry, click here, otherwise, continue reading to find out about early answering machine technology.

In 1878, shortly after inventing his phonograph, Thomas Edison created a “top ten list” of uses of the phonograph. 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's first phonograph
Edison’s first phonograph

In the mean time, the home phonograph industry went into decline. “Free” music was becoming available from radio broadcasts. Looking for a way to enhance their products, several record companies began experimenting with electronic equipment in the recording studio. They developed electromagnetic cutters to make records, and fed music to them using microphones and amplifiers like those in radio studios. The results were mixed. Certainly, these records sounded different. The acoustic process could create pleasant sounding records, but it could not capture the high-frequency or low-frequency sounds (the “bass” and “treble” sounds). The new “electrical recordings” could do that, but to some listeners it sounded harsh. Improved electrical recording technology designed by Western Electric became available a few years later, and eventually the only record companies still using acoustic recording were a few located in England.

The advent of electrical recording did not save the record industry–most of the small companies faded away, and both Columbia and Victor were absorbed by larger corporations. However, electrical recording thrived in the new corporate environment. Now, with connections to the emerging radio and motion picture industries, recording technology made rapid advances. These improvements would eventually find their way into consumer records.

As it turned out, the phonograph became an entertainment device in the 1890s, but telephone recording continued to intrigue inventors. The phonograph’s major shortcoming for telephone recording stemmed from the fact that it was a purely mechanical machine, and could not be connected directly to the telephone (even though Edison had experimented with such direct telephone recording).

Magnetic Recording and the Telephone

In 1900, Valdemar Poulsen patented the Telegraphone, a device to record sound on a steel wire or tape. He later designs a model to answer the telephone automatically and record a message.

Poulsens original cylinder telegraphone
Poulsen’s original Telegraphone


Magnetic recording would eventually prove to be the technology of choice for answering machines, but it would be years before the proponents of the phonograph would give up on the idea of a phonograph-based telephone recorder.


Edison’s Return

Thomas Edison returned to the idea of using the phonograph as a telephone recorder. His 1914 invention, the Telescribe, was a simple device to record telephone conversations using wax cylinders. It was not an automatic answering machine like the Poulsen Telegraphone. The Telescribe was not successful, but a similar, cylinder-based telephone recorder was reintroduced a few years later by Edison’s business phonograph manufacturing company (the company that made Edison cylinder dictating machines).

Thomas A. Edison, Inc. “Telediphone”

Answering Machines in the 1920s

The idea of using the phonograph to record a telephone conversation was re-invented many times in the early 20th century, perhaps because no commercial telephone recorders appeared on the market (at least in the United States). These inventions were quietly patented, or sometimes loudly announced, but all faded into obscurity almost instantly. For example, in 1925 inventor Truman Stevens (shown here) demonstrated his automatic answering machine, based on cylinder dictation technology. The story was picked up by Popular Science Monthly and other popular magazines, but the product did not succeed.


The Dictaphone Telecord and Edison Telediphone

The Edision “Telescribe”

The first machine to have any success in the U.S. market was the Dictaphone Telecord, an electronic telephone recorder (though still using wax cylinders) first offered in 1926. Dictaphones were made by a division of the Columbia phonograph company, but the Dictaphone division would soon become an independent company. The technology of electronics, which was still new in 1926, was the key to linking the phonograph and the telephone, because it allowed the incoming signal to be amplified if necessary.

However, by this time, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T;) and its subsidiaries were creating a monopoly on telephone service. In order for a telephone-related invention to succeed, it had to be adopted by the Bell System. AT&T; evaluated the Telecord, but then decided not to allow consumers to use the it on the public network. Nonetheless, customers who had private lines (such as railroads, which had private lines from station to station along the tracks) began using the Telecord for record-keeping purposes.

1930 AT&T; modified its rules allowing the use of a Telecord in conjunction with a PBX (private branch exchange, the type of switchboard used in large offices). But this had little impact on the success of the Telecord, because few customers wanted to use the technology in this way.

Some time in the 1930s, the Edison company introduced the Telediphone to compete with the Telecord. Both were modified dictation machines.

The Ipsophon

While AT&T; blocked most attempts to use recording devices on telephone wires, in Europe the situation was different. There were several products available in the 1920s, based on the Poulsen

Ipsophons in Use at the BBC studios, 1930s

Telegraphone, that could be used to make telephone recordings. A landmark in the development of the automatic answering machine came in 1936 with the appearance of the Swiss answering machine called the Ipsophon, a magnetic recorder using steel tape. Ipsophons were intended to be used by large offices or by the telephone companies themselves. Users accessed their messages by “dialing in” to the machines–in other words, this was not a machine for the individual or the home. The Ipsophon survived World War II and re-appeared in the United States in the late 1940s. Although it was technologically obsolete by that time it had been modified so that users could pick up their recorded messages remotely, just as we do today. To check the messages, the owner of the machine called his or her own number, waited for the machine to answer, and used a whistle to activate the playback mechanism. Electronic filters, tuned to receive the tone of the whistle, detected the signal. While the security of the system was weak, it probably represents the first use of this remote-access feature.

Answering Machines and the U.S. Telephone Companies

The “Electronic Secretary,” an early post-World War II answering machine.

In the U.S., the telephone company’s response to the growing demand for answering machines was to introduce live r live answering services. This consisted of a special switchboard and circuitry that allowed a sort of “call forwarding.” Live answering services (which are still available today) were popular among small businesses and doctors. However, the success of the answering services stimulated inventors to develop new answering machines. Under pressure from these inventors, the Federal Communications Commission for the first time permitted the use of automatic answering machines on AT&T; lines in 1949, although there were tight restrictions on what technologies could be used and who controlled their use. The Electronic Secretary was one of the first of the postwar answering machines. The original model recorded on wire and used a 45 rpm record as the outgoing message. Later models used two tape transports. Succumbing to customer demand, the Bell System companies and GTE rented this machine to customers by the early 1960s.

The Peatrophone – AT&T’s First Answering Machine

The Peatrophone

The Bell System companies (the regional Bell companies such as Southern Bell and Illinois Bell) usually followed the rules laid down by AT&T–but; not always. Some of these companies found that renting answering machines was good business, not the potential disaster that AT&T; feared. In response to growing demand, AT&T;’s corporate culture began to change. By 1950s, AT&T; announced that it will test the “Peatrophone” answering machine made by Gray Manufacturing Company. Gray was a maker of telephone equipment, and is related to the current Graybar Corporation.

The first tests were made in the Ohio Bell system, and AT&T; made Peatrophones available to all customers by 1951. However, the company’s reluctance to embrace the new technology was suggested by the retrograde nature of the Peatrophone, which used two phonograph discs instead of magnetic tape. A small disc held the outgoing message, and a larger one was used to capture the incoming calls. Extra disks were stored in the lid.

Answering Machines of the 1960s

There were a large number of answering machines introduced by European or U.S. companies during the 1960s, and for the most part the companies have disappeared or were absorbed by Asian firms. In 1962, Robosonics Inc. of New York introduced the Robosonic Secretary. While expensive (most models cost over $500), the Robosonic machine was extremely rugged and reliable. The Robosonic Secretary was replaced in 1963 by the Robosonics Record-O-Phone. This machine could be remotely accessed by using a whistle called the Telekey, or later an electronic signal generator, held up to the receiver by the user.

At about $500, the Recordo-O-Phone (sold in the early 1970s) was really only practical for businesses.

Other notable machines of the 1960s included the 1964/5 Code-a-Phone Model 500 tape based answering machine, and the later model 700, which was one of the leased machines distributed through AT&T.; The Dictaphone corporation in 1965 introduced the Telecord RCME-7, a combination remote dictation unit and answering machine . European companies at this time were introducing very high quality answering machines, such as the Telefunken Model 101F telephone Answering Machine of 1966.

A Boom in the 1980s

A Phone-Mate 9750, circa late 1980s.

The “takeoff” period for answering machine occurred after 1984, when AT&T; split up and customers finally had complete freedom to buy their own telephone equipment. At that point, answering machines began to sell more than 1,000,000 units per year, and their technology became standardized. In the 1990s, telephone companies began offering “voice mail” services (which had been available since at least the 1970s at the offices of IBM and some other companies). However, the sales of home answering machines remained high. The advent of the cell phone, which virtually demands some kind of voice mail system, has begun to create change. It seems likely that with the convergence of the Internet and telephony, stand-alone answering machines will most likely disappear.

Leave a Comment