How the Spread of the Answering Machine Got Put on Hold

A telephone monopoly and a fear of wiretapping kept the invention out of homes for decades

A device circa 1970, when it was still strange for people to talk to machines. (Getty Images)
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In the spring of 1900, twenty-four years after Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone, a Danish inventor named Valdemar Poulsen unveiled the “telegraphone” at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was an engineering marvel—Poulsen recorded sound on a wire using nothing but a magnet, similar to the principle that underlies computer hard drives—and it was a minor social miracle, an antidote to Bell’s constantly ringing telephone. The telegraphone was the world’s first answering machine.

“It is easy to see that such an apparatus would be a great convenience, especially for a man of business,” opined the London Daily News. “The experts present professed astonishment at what it can do,” the New York World announced following tests in the United States.

Not everyone was overjoyed. AT&T, which held a monopoly on the U.S. phone system and forbid the use of third-party technology, suppressed the innovation for more than half a century, according to research by Mark Clark, a historian of technology. “If at any time there was a reasonable probability that such a device was connected at one end or the other...it would greatly restrict the use of the telephone,” an AT&T executive wrote in 1930.

A big concern was that the device would be used not just to answer calls but to record conversations. The American Telegraphone Company, which had attempted unsuccessfully to market the machine, claimed that AT&T feared the device’s ability to record calls. It would deter “illegitimate uses of the telephone in corrupt business schemes and in social duplicity”—thus depriving the phone company of up to a third of its business.

Meanwhile, AT&T scientists were building their own version of the answering machine. For six months in 1934, callers to Bell Laboratories were greeted by a recorded message and prompted to leave their own. But it would be another 17 years before AT&T offered the technology to its customers.

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