My Answering Machine Sure Had Its Hang-ups

A long-standing member of my household passed away recently following an extended period of malaise. His name was Hal, and I shall miss him, though it must be said there were many occasions when he and I very nearly came to blows. Of course, any scrap between us would have been completely one-sided. Hal, you see, was my answering machine.

I'm not the kind of person who names inanimate objects, the way some men name their cars or 9-irons, but I realized long ago that Hal had a mind of his own. Partly because he, too, prominently featured a small, red light (or "eye," as I liked to think), I named him after the Cyclopean supercomputer in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick's HAL attempts to kill his human overseers on board the spacecraft Discovery because he is convinced they have decided to pull his plug.

All of my Hal's meddlesome behavior stemmed from a like insecurity. I bought him when I was a poor graduate student in the Midwest. His model had recently been discontinued by the manufacturer and was therefore going cheap. I suspect that from the beginning Hal felt obsolete and lived in terror of being replaced. In fact, I'm sure he thought of little else but how to prevent that from happening.

I began to notice that Hal was giving preferential treatment to certain callers, allowing long-winded friends and relatives to leave unimportant messages of any length while interrupting others in the second or third sentence, before possibly crucial information could be relayed. The cut-off callers were invariably single women. A typical example went something like this: "Hi, Sean, this is Becky. I wanted to ask if you'd be interested in meeting me down at--"

That's as much as Hal would permit her to say. The woman in such cases was always someone whose last name I didn't know and whom I had no way of contacting. I can only assume that Hal was afraid I would move in with an affluent young lady whose state-of-the-art answering machine would render him superfluous. Having once moved in with a woman who came to regard me as superfluous, I understood his fear.

Hoping to outfox Hal, I changed his message, instructing callers to give their phone number first, followed quickly by their name and a brief message. Hal effectively countered that move by cutting off callers after they gave the first few digits of their phone number. This resulted in messages like "Five four eight sev--" and "Two five three--" and "Why, you silly boy --"

Despite Hal's best efforts, I finally did meet a very special woman who eventually agreed to marry me. "How did we ever find each other?" she said to me as we lolled atop a green hill in Devon on the first day of our engagement, staring up at a cloudless sky. I didn't see any reason to go into it, but I felt certain that we never would have found each other had we not met in England one summer with Hal back home in the States, screening phone calls day and night.

Eventually my fiancée and I began to talk seriously about replacing Hal. I tried to explain to him that life offers none of us any real security, but he just stared back at me with his red eye and said nothing. Not long after that, he began to malfunction. I don't like to dwell on it, but I'm sure he died of a broken heart.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.