The History Of Voicemail

People all around the world rely on voicemail, whether it's a message left for a friend in transit or an important business lead, voicemail enables us to deliver valuable information to a recipient otherwise engaged. But how many of us know who invented it, what it evolved from, the technologies it implements and the systems that preceded it? This article will take us right back to the beginning.

One thing that goes without saying is that you can't have a voicemail without recording voice which is why our first stop is to 1853 and the first known recording device invented by the Frenchman Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville.

The Phonautograph

Phonautograph

Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville started out as a printer, a profession that gave him a fascinating insight into the latest scientific discoveries of the time. Specifically interested in the idea of recording speech, he became an inventor, creating the device that he is most known for. Named the phonautograph it used a horn to collect sound that, when attached to a diaphragm, would vibrate a stiff bristle that would inscribe an image on a lamp black coated cylinder.

He was awarded a French patent for the phonautograph on the 25th of March 1857. Interestingly the device lacked the ability to play back the sound it recorded, perhaps not surprising when you consider its job was to investigate sound waves. While he did manage to sell a few phonautographs he didn't profit from his invention, and he lived out his days selling books in his native Paris.

150 years later a team of scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California undertook a project to examine a phonautogram retrieved from Paris. The team proved that its recordings contained enough information to recreate the sound.

Scott de Martinville

While Scott de Martinville was working on the phonautograph another idea was circling the scientific community, this would lead to one of the most widely used devices ever, the telephone.

The Telephone

Voicemail would of course not have been possible without the telephone, a device used multiple times daily by nearly everyone on the planet. The telephone, in its simplest form, requires a caller to speak into a transmitter (that converts the sound waves into electrical signals), the sound then being reproduced in the receiver at the other end of the call. A ringer that is used to alert users of an incoming call and a dial pad where users can enter the telephone number they wish to reach are employed to complete the telephone.

Although Alexander Graham Bell is usually considered to be the inventor of the telephone receiving a patent in 1876, the German Johann Philipp Reis produced a prototype in 1860 that was demonstrated successfully in 1862. Undoubtedly Bells work was the key building block leading us to where we are today.

Alexander Graham Bell

Bell came from a family of elocutionists which strongly influenced his interest in hearing and speech, something that his father encouraged, and because both his mother and wife were deaf a lot of his early research was in this field.

Bell was born in Scotland where he lived until the age of 23 before moving to Canada and then the US where he naturalised as an American citizen in 1882.

Our next stop takes us to a device that's function is an essential ingredient in voicemail systems. That is the recording and playing back of sound.

The Phonograph

Almost everyone has heard of Thomas Edison and uses something that he pioneered in their daily lives. From the light bulb to electric power and motion pictures, Edison racked up over 1000 patents throughout his lifetime.

Getting his start as a telegrapher after a fortuitous event that saw him save the life of a train station attendant's son, Edison worked the night shift at the Western Union, which gave him an ample amount of time to concentrate on his passion for inventing. Edison is also known as one of the founders of General Electric with the financial backing of the Business Magnate J.P Morgan.

Thomas Edison

Another of Edison's inventions, created in 1877, was the phonograph, a device that mechanically recorded and reproduced sound. The first device of its kind that could play back the sound that it recorded the phonograph added to the already extensive list of Edison's inventions.

The phonograph recorded sounds in a similar way to the phonautograph by inscribing on to the surface of a rotating cylinder the substantial deviations produced by sound vibration. The sound was played back by a stylus that vibrated as it traced the grooves in the cylinder. Although the recording was very faint a flaring horn was used to amplify the sound.

Emile Berliner started using flat discs instead of phonograph cylinders to record and reproduce sound and formed the Berliner Gramophone Company in 1895. This transition along with other continued improvements made the disc phonograph the dominant audio recording format until the invention of the compact disc.

Alexander Graham Bell appears on our list for the second time being responsible for the next design. Although we are still a long way away from voicemail, every step is taking us closer to what we take for granted today.

Wax Strip Recorder

Wax Strip Recorder

The first tape recorder ever invented was called the Wax Strip Recorder, dreamed up by Alexander Graham Bell in 1886. It was nothing at all like the tape recorders that early answering machines used, Bell's recorder used a 4.8mm strip of wax covered paper that moved from one reel to another, coming into the contact with the recording or playback stylus in between. When the device recorded, the sharp-pointed-stylus would cut the wax from the paper strip thanks to a vibrating diaphragm. When sound was played back a loosely mounted stylus carried the sound through a listening tube.

Bell did not commercially produce his recorder, instead concentrating on his other inventions and his passion for helping the deaf.

Another little-known fact about Bell is that he is one of the founders of the National Geographic Society and served as its president from 1896 to 1904, a testament to his betterment of science and invention.

The next two items on the timeline provided the technology to the first precursor of voicemail and are therefore crucial stages in the history of voicemail.

The Wire Recorder

The Wire Recorder

By Bitman at hu.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons

In 1898 a man named Valdemar Poulsen from Denmark created a technique to record telephone conversations using a device he called a wire recorder. A transducer, also known as a recording head, captured sound as electrical signals along a length of wire. The sounds were played back by drawing the wire back across the transducer.

The wire recorder, although basic in comparison, was the device that eventually lead to the answering machine.

Poulsen's had a stamp issued in his honour in 1969 and the Valdemar Poulsen Gold Medal, first given to Poulsen himself in 1939, was awarded yearly for outstanding research in the field of radio techniques until it was discontinued in 1993.

Magnetic Tape Recorder

The German-Austrian engineer Fritz Pfleumer was behind the invention of magnetic tape in 1928, using the same principles as Valdemar Poulsen did in his wire recorder. Pfleumer coated a long strip of paper with Ferric Oxide, which was easy to manipulate magnetically with a tape head or transducer. The recording was stored on the oxide side of the tape while the other side was used to hold the tape together.

In 1932 after perfecting his creation Pfleumer granted AEG, the German electronics giant, the right to use his work in the construction of the world's first useful tape recorder named the Magnetophon K1, which was unveiled in 1935.

Magnetophon

By George Shuklin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Getting ever closer to the new voicemail of today brings us to our next creation. That is, of course, the answering machine. A device still used by people today it can be safely said that we owe voicemail to this device.

Answering Machine

The answering machine is clearly the pre-cursor to modern day voicemail. For as long as there has been a telephone and equipment with the ability to record sound, there have been people trying to perfect the answering machine. Edison listed the ability to record telephone conversations as one of his top ten potential uses for the phonograph and people ever since have been stamping their mark on this device.

Moving on with his idea Edison invented the Telescribe in 1914. It was a simple device to record telephone conversations using wax cylinders. The Telescribe was not a success due mainly to its lack of automation; it did, however, highlight the benefits that could be gleaned from such a device. Many other people dabbled with the idea of using the phonograph to record telephone conversations, however, none of them proved to be of lasting use apart from Dictaphone Telecord.

The Dictaphone Telecord was the first device to gain moderate success in the US. Released in 1926, it used electronics to link the phonograph to the telephone, amplifying the signal significantly. The major drawback to the device was AT&Ts lack of willingness to allow their customers to use the Telecord on public telephone lines. To compete with the Telecord Edison brought out the Telediphone in the 1930s, however, it saw little success.

A pivotal moment in the history of the answering machine came about in 1936 when a company from Switzerland named Oerlikon brought out the Ipsophon that used magnetic steel tape to record messages. The Ipsophon was a large machine, about the size of a modern washing machine, intended for use by big organisations such as the BBC who owned several in the 1930s.

The Ipsophon came with its own connected handset that could be used to dial in and listen to the messages. This changed in the 1940s when the device was upgraded to allow remote access from the telephone network. The modifications meant that the user had to use a whistle to activate the playback mechanism. Electronic filters were employed to recognise the tone of the whistle. The Ipsophon was the first machine to allow remote access of messages.

After the Federal Communication Commission allowed the use of answering machines on AT&T lines in 1949, a slurry of companies jumped into the market and the Electronic Secretary emerged as the clear winner. The first design recorded on wire, not unlike Poulsens wire recorder, and used a 45 rpm record for the outgoing greeting while later models used two tapes, one for incoming messages and the other for the outgoing greeting.

There was a high demand for the Electronic Secretary, and by the 1960s GTE and Bell Systems offered them as rentals to its customers.

Throughout the 1950s AT&Ts attitude to the answering machine changed and they released the Peatrophone made by Gray Manufacturing. The Peatrophone, however, used old technology and at the time was retro in design so it did not see the success enjoyed by the Electronic Secretary. It did, however, indicate that answering machines would become a necessity and not a luxury.

The 1960s saw lots of new answering machines introduced from the Robosonic Secretary to the Telefunken Model 101F. These new answering machines were a lot more durable in design and offered better quality recordings. More and more people were starting to realise just how useful answering machines were and we would see a massive explosion of devices hitting the market by the 1980s.

The Speech Filing System

The Speech Filing System, later known as the Audio Distribution System was developed by IBM in 1973 based on ideas by Stephen Boies. It was the first voice-messaging system put into production and used human voice and fixed line touch tone phones before the computer came along. The first prototypes were trialled by IBM executives to some success. After further development IBM marketed the system and some systems were sold worldwide.

Voicemail Invention

The first modern voicemail can be traced back to a system invented by Robin Elkins. He received a patent in 1978 for his audio storage and distribution system; Elkins worked out how to convert analogue sound waves into digital forms to be used on computers. Elkins never intended his idea to be used as voicemail. Instead, he was trying to find a better way to record music. Nevertheless, what he created is still used as the backbone of today's voicemail systems.

Voice Message Express

Voicemail as we know it today was created in 1979 by a man named Gordon Matthews. It was an idea born out of the endless frustration of 'telephone tag', (where two callers consistently keep missing each other) in an era when mobile phones were in their infancy. Matthews started working on his voicemail idea under the name 'VMX' or 'Voice Message Express' and when complete he sold his first voicemail system to the company 3M.

Around the time that Matthews released his system, voicemail was, even more so than now, a huge timesaver and was quickly taken up by those that could afford it. Some of the earliest adopters, aside for 3M were Intel, American Express, Kodak, Shell, Westinghouse and Corning Glass.

Fact - The word 'voicemail' was trademarked in 1980 but eventually became the accepted name for all automated voice systems.

International Voicemail Association

This organisation was formed to hold annual conferences for service providers in both the US and Europe aimed at improving the voicemail industry.

Voicemail for Business

From the early 1980s up until the early 1990s corporate voicemail remained virtually unaltered until the invention of the automated attendant by 'Octel Communications' changed the way companies interacted with their customers. When a customer was first connected to the company, they were directed to click a number on their dial pad that corresponded with the service they needed. It was this feature amongst others that lead Octel to become the number one supplier of voicemail to both carriers and companies by the mid-1990s.

In 1997, Octel Communications was purchased by its biggest competitor 'Lucent Technology' where it was merged with Lucent's AUDIX division into the newly named 'Octel Messaging Division'.

By the year 2000, it is estimated that there were over one hundred and fifty million users of both corporate and carrier voicemail that was made by the Octel Messaging Division, a significant feat considering voicemails humble beginnings.

Fact - By the time we reached the year 2000 voicemail had become an essential staple on phone systems globally. Used by both companies and private users voicemail has changed the way that we interact with each other and has streamlined and improved communication on a worldwide scale.

Visual Voicemail

Defined as a random access voicemail with a visual interface, visual voicemail was the next logical step in the never ending evolution of voicemail systems. As a tool to save time and increase productivity, visual voicemail has taken us out of the dark ages where users were continuously encumbered with the inconvenience of dialling in to listen to their voicemails, endlessly having to press digits on their phones' dial pad to move forwards or backwards and often needing to listen through a monotonous slew of unwanted messages before finally getting to the one they actually wanted to listen to.

Visual voicemail has completely revolutionised the way we feel about voicemail. With voicemails neatly laid out in a clickable list format, users can seamlessly scan through their messages choosing which ones to play first, which ones to delete and which ones to save for later.

Visual voicemail was first promoted on the first iPhone in 2007 and inspired other providers to offer standalone products to improve on the idea. Now used by millions of users globally visual voicemail is slowly phasing out the dial-in voicemail systems.

Voicemail Transcription

Voicemail transcription came about shortly after visual voicemail. It's a feature that converts voicemails into a readable format giving users the option of reading the entire voicemail or getting an idea of what the voicemail contains from the first few words. Users can make a decision whether it's worth listening to the message or not; this has helped to save time and increase productivity.

The Future of Voicemail

With technology constantly changing it’s interesting to imagine the voicemail of the future. Perhaps virtual reality will allow us to interact with a recording from a sender. Or as disk space becomes larger and less expensive our great great grandchildren may find it interesting to listen to some of the voicemails made today, a digital timecapsule. Until then there's nothing that beats listening to a voicemail sent by someone special.

References

Sound Recording Predates Edison Phonograph. npr.org. 27th of March 2008.

Oldest Recorded Voices Sing Again. news.bbc.co.uk. 28th of March 2008.

The Phonautographic Manuscripts of Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville. Edited and Translaterd by Patrick Feaster. firstsounds.org. December 2009.

The Telephone and Telephone Exacanges. By J E Kingsbury. archive.org. 1915.

Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude. cornellpress.cornell.edu. 02nd January 1990.

The History of the Telephone. By Herbert Newton Casson. books.google. 1910.

The Telephone and Its Several Inventors. By Lewis Coe. trove.nla.gov.au. 1911.

The Phonograph's Voice and the Transformation of Writing. By Michael Heumann. econtact.ca. January 2013.

The Birth of the Recording Industry. By Allen Koenigsberg. musesmuse.com. 1990.

The Biography of Thomas Edison. By Gerald Beals. thomasedison.com. January 1999.

Tape Recorder - History - Earliest Variant: Non-magnetic Wax Strip Recorder. liquisearch.com.

Two New Inventions. By Marmaduke. archive.org. 12th of January 1907.

The Wire Recorder. recording-history.org.

Magnetic Recording the First 100 Years. By Eric Daniel. books.google.

Tape Recording Technology. web.archive.org. January 1956.

Recording History recording-history.org.

Voice Mail Wasn't Inventor's Intent. By Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. articles.orlandosentinel.com. 16th of August 1995.

Inventor Battles To Protect Patents. By Vicki McCash. articles.sun-sentinel.com. 7th of August 1995.

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