Why AT&T Tried to Kill the Answering Machine

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If you follow the history of the answering machine it spans more than 100 years with a variety of formats and recording media. The process began in the late 1800's with Valdemar Pouisen who invented the first device to record sound through magnetics and wire. This device was known as the telegraphone and it paved the way not only for answering machines but for all forms of audio recording to come.

Modern recording devices and the rapid advancement of technology show us that people are ravenous and relentless when it comes to upgrading and building on existing technology. This is the same attitude that people held in the early 1900's but despite the popularity of such a device there seemed to be a lack of research and production in the market of answering machines through the first half of the 1900's.

While others worked to further the use of the recording device, it wasn't until approximately 1949 that the first actual commercial answering machine was marketed successfully. The bulky machine cost $200 and relied on magnetic wire. It wasn't until the 60's and later that the switch to magnetic tape was made.

That tape would change history as well - not just for answering machines but for recording audio and video. When this technology was paired with the telephone, anyone making or receiving a phone call could easily record that conversation or message to magnetic tape using a simple device.

But this is where we find a bit of a gap in research in development. With variable forms of technology, the U.S. was booming with advancements left and right in a number of fields yet there were so few breakthroughs in the technology relating to answering machines… why?

Answering Machines - A New, Sweeping Technology… Swept under the Rug

It's well known the first automatic answering machine was said to be created by Willy Muller in 1935 but the truth is that Bell Labs, owned by AT&T during this era, had been working on prototypes for automatic answering machines even before this. There's even evidence that some dabbled in answering machines as early as 1924 using recording cylinders. It's not clear if these were ever mass produced on any marketable scale however.

So with the regular advancements of technology - why did it take so long for there to be an answering machine device that could be commercially marketed to businesses as well as individuals? It had nothing to do with how functional the technology actually was. Even in 1951 AT&T was offering a working answering machine called the Peatrophone, which used two phonograph discs to play and record messages.

The problem with the technology was because it did work - it worked very well. That's why AT&T decided to put a halt to the technology.

Opposing the Threat of the Answering Machine

As stated, AT&T owned Bell Labs during the era where research was taking place to develop an answering machine that would work for home owners as well as businesses. The concept came about because of the freedom to experiment among employees at Bell Labs - much the same way Google inspires their engineers to utilize 20% of their work time pursuing their own interests and projects. That environment led to the concept behind the automatic answering machine.

The automatic device would pick up if no one was there to answer the phone when it rang, play a brief message and then record the information onto media - generally magnetic tape as the tape formats became more popular.

Shortly after the concept came to fruition however, AT&T shut down the research on magnetic storage and the automatic answering machine. The research data was concealed by AT&T and archived until just recently where the reports were uncovered in records and lab notes from Bell archives. But why pull the plug and conceal a product with such potential? Why hide something that would inevitably come to light down the road through the research and development of others?

The answer is that AT&T strongly believed recording devices attached to phone lines - especially those with magnetic tapes and the potential for high-fidelity recording - would force people to abandon the use of the telephone.

The greatest concern rested in the belief that residential and business users would completely avoid the telephone because they feared that recording conversations might create fears of privacy intrusion. Some may not use the phone because they want to discuss obscene or even dubious topics and they wouldn't want those conversations recorded. They also assumed that business owners would fear a recorded conversation could cause contractual issues between parties. Overall, AT&T worried that magnetic recording would change the whole nature of telephone conversations and render the service of telephones much less attractive to their customers.

Because of this halt in research, the potential for magnetic tape recording for telephone answering machines was not fully explored until later years - and didn't truly hit home with the public until after World War II.

The reaction that came those many years ago from AT&T was not the first time that a company bucked at the idea of revolutionary technology - and it likely won't be the last. This is however one of those situations where - despite the best efforts of the company to shut the technology down - there was no stopping powerful minds from continuing to find practical uses for magnetic tape technology with continued advancement into the digital answering machines we use today.

The audio engineers at Audible Forensics are well acquainted with various approaches to voicemail transfer services. They frequently apply audio enhancement techniques to voicemails and provide certificates of authenticity for legal purposes when needed. Visit our site if you’re interested in checking out our voicemail recording services.

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