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Memory Lane

The device most commonly associated with the inventor Alexander Graham Bell is (duh!) the telephone. But in the 1880s, alongside the scientist Charles Sumner Tainter, Bell was hard at work on a secondary invention that would spawn a category with enormous influence on the way people communicate.

The machine Bell and Tainter were building encompassed a rotating cylinder slathered in a heavy wax coating whose surface was designed to be violated by the sharp tooth of a steel stylus. The purpose was to record and reproduce sounds. Not just any sounds, but in particular those coming from a telephone.

By 1988, Bell and Tainter were manufacturing their recording machines under the name of Volta Graphophone Co. from Bridgeport, Conn. The company’s target market consisted of businesses that wanted to preserve important conversations.

Apparently, enough of them were taken by the technology that a larger suitor, Columbia Graphophone Co., became interested in the budding market for business recording technology. Columbia Graphophone bought Volta’s patent and, under the revised name of Dictaphone Corp., turned it into a new sort of device for recording phone calls and live conversations. The Dictaphone Telecord machine borrowed from the budding technology of electronics to amplify phone signals so that recording quality would improve. By the mid-1920s, the thing worked well enough, and had gained enough satisfied business customers, that Dictaphone believed it might appeal to residential consumers, too. After all, millions of Americans by now were using telephones in their homes, and it seemed possible that many of them would warm to a device that would let them preserve meaningful conversations they’d had over the phone.

Unfortunately for Dictaphone, a gigantic obstacle loomed: the American Telephone & Telegraph Co. The telephone monopoly that was AT&T controlled the entirety of the public phone system – not just the network of switching offices and wires that carried phone calls, but any device attached to the network’s termination points in homes. AT&T honchos evaluated the Dictaphone Telecord in the late 1920s and declared it unsuitable for attachment to the phone network. Like that, any idea of supplying the early-generation phone recording machine to consumers vanished.

What didn’t disappear, though, was a growing interest in solving the problem of the unanswered phone call. Answering services – banks of live attendants that took calls for doctors and business owners – were growing in popularity after WWII, and in 1949, AT&T’s government house-sitter, the Federal Communications Commission, for the first time allowed a small number of providers to offer automated answering machines on AT&T lines – so long as customers leased them from AT&T itself. These included a device branded the Electronic Secretary, which used a 45-RPM record to house an outgoing message, and recorded incoming calls on a wire. Phonographic disks also were used in a successor machine, the Peatrophone, rented to customers by AT&T beginning in 1951 after the phone monopoly began to realize there was genuine interest in answering machines. Yet high costs – in part a reflection of the absence of an open market – stifled the technology’s adoption. Robosonics Corp. of New York introduced in the 1960s what was regarded as the hardiest and most reliable phone answering machine yet – the Record-O-Phone – but its $500 price made it affordable only for businesses.

The breakthrough for consumer-accessible telephone answering systems came about because of two important changes to policy governing the phone system. The first was the landmark 1968 Carterfone decision, in which the xxx overturned longstanding FCC rules that prevented outsiders from attaching new devices to the phone network. (That ruling led to the 1976 adoption of the Part 68 of the FCC rules, which spell out the relatively limited technical requirements for things that dangle at the end of the phone network.) The breakup of the AT&T system under a Justice Department consent decree in 1984 provided the biggest catapult for the answering machine category, as customers by then had unfettered choice in buying their own telephones and add-on equipment. According to Recording History (www.recording-history.org), manufacturers sold more than 1 million answering machines annually beginning in 1984, as the twin benefits of a free-for-all marketplace – expanding feature sets and declining prices – took hold.

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