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No Answer: How and Why AT&T Killed the First Answering Machine

Magnetic tape would change history. With it, easily storing audio, visual, and electronic data became possible. And, when paired with the telephone, it allowed callers to leave recorded messages on tape when the person they were calling was not available. The answering machine didn’t become commercially available until 1949, and it was one of those inventions that left a lot of people saying Why Didn’t I Think of That? But not everybody. That’s because one of the first prototypes of the automatic answering machine was built at Bell Labs, then owned by AT&T, in 1934.

(Note: Wikipedia cites Willy Müller’s 1935 prototype as the first automatic answering machine. That being said, there’s evidence of such devices dating back as early as 1924, though these machines relied on “recording cylinders” rather than magnetic tape. Furthermore, it is not clear if they were ever actually mass-produced.).

In 1951, AT&T finally offered its customers an answering device: The Peatrophone. It was made by a third-party manufacturer and utilized two phonograph discs, not magnetic tape.

So why did it take so long before anything resembling the answering machine hit the market? It’s not because Bell Labs engineer Clarence Hickman’s  1934 machine was an unwieldy 6-foot tall monstrosity, and it’s not because it didn’t work. Quite the contrary, it’s precisely because it did work.

Gizmodo has a great story, excerpted from Tim Wu’s book “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.” In the piece, Wu describes Bell Labs as a place where the leading scientists of the day could pursue their interests in almost absolute freedom. (It reminds me of Google’s policy of encouraging engineers to spend 20% of their time pursuing independent Google projects of their choosing). It was that innovative environment that led to Hickman’s “answering device.”

The machine was attached to a telephone. If there was no one to answer the telephone when it rang, the machine would beep and begin recording the caller’s message onto magnetic tape.

Shortly after this, AT&T ordered all research into magnetic storage be halted, and “Hickman’s research was suppressed and concealed for more than sixty years, coming to light only when the historian Mark Clark came across Hickman’s laboratory notebook in the Bell archives.”

But why?

The answer, rather surreal, is evident in the corporate memoranda, also unearthed by Clark, imposing the research ban. AT&T firmly believed that the answering machine, and its magnetic tapes, would lead the public to abandon the telephone.

More precisely, in Bell’s imagination, the very knowledge that it was possible to record a conversation would ” greatly restrict the use of the telephone,” with catastrophic consequences for its business. Businessmen, for instance, the theory supposed, might fear the potential use of a recorded conversation to undo a written contract. Tape recorders would also inhibit discussing obscene or ethically dubious matters. In sum, the very possibility of magnetic recording, it was feared, would ” change the whole nature of telephone conversations” and ” render the telephone much less satisfactory and useful in the vast majority of cases in which it is employed.”

So, in part because of AT&T’s decision, the full possibilities of magnetic tape were not fully explored until much later. Audio tape recording did not really hit public awareness until after World War II. Magnetic tape wasn’t used for data storage until the early 50’s.

AT&T’s harsh reaction to Hickman’s machine was not the first time revolutionary technology has been suppressed out of fear, and it won’t be the last. Thankfully, while they did their best to eradicate the disruptive power that they knew magnetic tape could have on the status quo, Bell Labs has innovated countless other technologies that have changed the course of history, including: the first transistors, the UNIX operating system, C and C++ programming language, and the first wireless local area network (WLAN, read: WiFi). Bell Labs engineers have also won numerous Nobel prizes for discoveries such as the wave-like nature of matter and cosmic microwave background radiation. So when you look at it in that light, abandoning the answering machine and magnetic tape is something of a forgivable offense.

For more on this story, I strongly encourage you to read Tim Wu’s story, “How Ma Bell Shelved the Future for 60 Years.”

Follow us on Twitter @whydidnti and @thinkofthat.

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