Answering Machines

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ANSWERING MACHINES. The idea of devices to record telephone calls occurred simultaneously to several inventors, among them Thomas Edison, in the late nineteenth century. Edison's unsuccessful attempts to record a telephone call mechanically led to the invention of the phonograph, which achieved commercial success for entertainment purposes. In 1890, Valdemar Poulsen invented a telegraphone, the first magnetic recorder. Operating much like a modern tape recorder, the telegraphone was an automatic telephone answering machine, but it had no outgoing message. Following the advent of electronic tubes in the 1920s, several individuals and firms offered fully automatic answering machines that used magnetic tape and operated along the lines of the later, more familiar machines. These were used widely in Europe but were banned in the United States by AT&T, which saw them as a threat.

After World War II, new regulations made it possible to offer for sale answering machines such as one called the Electronic Secretary. Responding to demands from businesses, Bell Operating Companies began leasing answering machines in 1950. Reductions in cost stimulated demand for these machines by the mid-1970s, and they gained recognition as they were featured in motion pictures and television shows. With the dissolution of AT&T in 1984, most local operating companies ceased enforcing the remaining restrictions on answering machine use. Sales rose dramatically, exceeding one million units per year in the early 1980s. By the mid-1990s a majority of households owned a machine.


Morton, David. Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000.


See alsoTelephone .