History of Surveillance Recording

Today the issues of privacy, identity theft, and surveillance are always in the news, but the current “surveillance society” has been developing for many decades, aided by new technologies. Wiretapping, for example, began as early as the U.S. Civil War, when both sides tapped into the other force’s telegraph lines and simply copied down the messages. The advent of the telephone made wiretapping somewhat more difficult, as the rate of information flow on the telephone was much faster. For many years, there was no easy way to record telephone calls, so that detectives and law enforcement officials who wanted to listen in had to transcribe conversations in shorthand.

The beginnings: The Telegraphone

The desire for a telephone recorder for legitimate business purposes was one of the inspirations for Thomas Edison’s phonograph. Yet he discovered that the phonograph was not yet sensitive enough to do the job, and reworked it into a purely acoustic instrument by the time he announced it in late 1877.

Telephone Recording

Unfortunately, the American Telegraphone Company failed without producing very many machines, so there was little chance for its use to become common. About the time of World War I, the Dictaphone Corporation introduced a new, phonograph-based recorder capable of recording reliably from the telephone lines. AT&T; forbid its use on the public lines, although a few were used by power companies and railroads on their private lines.

Textophone telephone recorder


Recording devices were rarely used for surveillance in the United States in the period from the introduction of the telegraphone to the end of World War II, despite the many suggestions that they would be useful for this purpose. Instead, improved electronic devices like the Dictagraph (not made by Dictaphone despite the name) were popular among private detectives and the police. The story was somewhat different in Europe where (although I have not documented it) that the Nazi part relied heavily on a new technology-the magnetophon tape recorder-in surveillance gathering operations during the 1930s and early 1940s. A somewhat comparable use of recording was undertaken by the U.S. government during World War II to monitor telephone and cable transmissions between the U.S. and Japan.


A major shift came after 1945, when wire and tape recorders became available. While they were not usually advertised as such, many users apparently modified them to make surveillance recordings. The first discussions in the courts of whether or not sound recordings could be admitted as evidence began to appear at this time. The making of secret recordings began to be a common element in the plots of novels and movies, but the size of the machines and their general lack of portability probably made their actual use much less common than that.


Minifon recorder
Minifon recorder

It was not until the introduction of the transistor recorder in the early 1950s that secret recording became more common. Shortly after “pocket” size tape and wire recorders appeared, certain companies began promoting their use to make secret recorders. The Minifon, a West German product, was the best-known of these. As Cold War paranoia grew, so too did the making of these secret recordings.

James Bond, Richard Nixon. . and Roosevelt?

The best-documented cases of individuals (rather than law enforcement officers, intelligence operatives, or private detectives) using surveillance recorders extensively come from the offices of U.S. Presidents. Although Franklin Roosevelt briefly used a special telephone recorder in the 1940s, after World War II the general availability of these machines helped them find their way into the Oval Office.

RCA recorder that FDR used in his office
Roosevelt employed a hidden recorder in his office similar to this one, manufactured briefly in small numbers by RCA.

Truman used a wire recorder; Kennedy a dictation machine. The scandal that erupted over the infamous “Watergate Tapes,” however, brought the matter to the public’s attention. Nixon was an avid user of office dictation machines, but he also made recordings of telephone and office conversations without knowledge of the participants. He considered them a form of record-keeping, but when they became public they proved an embarrassment (Click here for the story of the Watergate tapes). Today the use of audio surveillance is arguably a minor issue compared to the massive use of video and internet surveillance. However, it is important to remember the deep roots that the surveillance have in our history. What is being done with technology today is not different in principle that what was done a century ago, but today it is undeniably more sophisticated. End
The telegraphone, the first magnetic recorder, was specifically designed to record directly from the telephone lines. It, too, was described by its inventors mainly as an office dictation machine or crude voicemail system. However, the American Telegraphone Company, which made the telegraphone under license in the U.S., and its distributor on the West Coast introduced the idea that sound recording could also be used for surveillance. A 1906 article, probably written by an American Telegraphone official, describes the following fictitious scenario: Said Mr. Brown to Mr. Jones: “I never in my life agreed to do anything of the sort!” “and I say that you did!” Mr. Jones replied flatly. “And I say again that I did not!” Just here Mr. Brown brought his fist down with a slam that made things rattle on Mr. Jones’s desk. He faced him with a glare of defiance and perhaps a little cunning. “Then I must repeat that you did!” Mr. Jones pursued smoothly. “Last Thursday morning, when we discussed the affair over the telephone, you agreed to do precisely that and nothing else. My plans have been made accordingly, and the fact that you have changed your mind doesn’t alter matters a particle.” “Jones!” thundered Mr. Brown, “I defy you to prove–” “Hold on!” There was something odd about Mr. Jones’s voice. Mr. Brown started a little and stared more. From the queer machine on the desk across the room, the cover was removed, to reveal an instrument of most unusual appearance. Mr. Jones stepped to his own desk and extracted from a drawer a big spool of fine, shiny wire. He hurried back and slipped it into the machine; he pressed the button and the spool began to spin rapidly; he picked up a pair of telephone receivers and listened for a minute. After which, he smiled slightly and said: “If you’ll just come over here and listen for a minute–?

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