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It's the Machine Dictators Love

By Darryl Rehr
Most of us have heard the story of Thomas Edison speaking his famous “Mary had a little lamb...” into the original tinfoil phonograph back in 1877.

Curtis Publishing Co., Philadelphia, c. 1915. Dicatation machines and labor division between the sexes. On the left, men dictate correspondence into machines. On the right, women listen and transcribe.
Most of us don’t know, however, that Edison invented the machine as a piece of office equipment. A year later, Edison published a list of ten ways his invention would benefit mankind. At the very top of that list: “Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.” At the time, other applications, such as the recording of music, seemed inconsequential. For Edison, the Phonograph meant business.

After its invention in 1877, the Phonograph went into hibernation for more than a decade while Edison turned his attention to electric light. The talking machine was relegated to a dark closet, waiting for the attention of others.

One of those others was Alexander Graham Bell, who teamed up with an instrument maker named Charles Sumner Tainter. They came up with a wax-coated cardboard cylinder as their recording medium and drove their machine with an electric motor for constant speed. To distinguish it from Edison’s “Phonograph,” they called it the “Graphophone.” It was a vast improvement over Edison’s machine, and by 1887 it was ready for market.
Edison would have no part of Bell and Tainter’s offer to form a partnership. He regarded them as usurpers, and since he had by now invented the light bulb, he went ahead to develop his own perfected Phonograph. Bell and Tainter, however, had a year’s head start.

Thomas Edison in June 1886 on the day the first commercial version of his "Phonograph" was completed.
So Edison and his staff had to work overtime to come up with their competing model, which was ready in June of 1886. A famous image of Edison at that time shows him seated next to his new Phonograph, his hair a mess, his body drooped with fatigue, but his expression one of grim resolve. The image fit with his publicly stated philosophy that inventing takes 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. In fact, however, he was exhausted because he had neglected the Phonograph and was now forced to make up for lost time.

The main difference between the Graphophone and the Phonograph was in the recording cylinders. Edison’s were made of solid wax rather than wax-covered cardboard. This meant that Phonograph cylinders could be shaved for re-use, a feature that was eventually adopted by Graphophone as well.

Dictation machines were hardly instant successes. In the early days, they were complicated and difficult to use. Sound fidelity was abominable. Cylinders only ran for four minutes. Businessmen didn’t know how to speak into them properly. Nobody knew how to handle corrections.

The heavy storage batteries for their electric motors were hard to maintain. Some models used foot pedals for power, but the image of a typist huffing and puffing on a treadle while trying to understand the dictation, keep ahead of corrections and change the cylinders every four minutes was nothing short of ludicrous.

Then, there was the high cost. At first, dictation machines available only by lease at $40 per year. Only later were they sold outright, price: $150. That’s about $1,950 today, which is quite a cost for something that didn’t work all that well to begin with. Even Edison was apparently unconvinced. At the offices of his various companies, stenographers and typists took down their notes using pencils and notebooks, without a single phonograph in use.

As an office machine enterprise, the early phonograph industry might have died quickly. As it happens, things took off when music and entertainment recordings were offered. Prices were lowered, the machines became popular in the home, and their makers began to reap fortunes.

As this happened, the business versions of the Phonograph and Graphophone hung on. They gradually gained popularity as customers learned to used them efficiently. Foot treadles and batteries were dropped for models that plugged into the wall. Businessmen learned to collect their thoughts prior to dictating a cylinder, reducing errors-in-wax. Errors that did happen were marked on a little card attached to the machine.

By World War I, dictating machines were familiar office fixtures, and in the following decades the machines were seen in all corners of society. Charlie Chaplin was said to keep one by his bed, dictating his ideas into it when he woke up several times each night. President Herbert Hoover used one to record his speeches, and machines were available for affluent travelers aboard ocean liners, on first class rail cars, and even the Graf Zepplin.

In the late thirties, dictating machines went electronic, with microphones and tube circuits replacing the old mechanical-acoustic technology. Edison’s electronic machine was dubbed the Voice Writer, signaling the birth of that particular brand name.

After World War II, the wax cylinder, then nearly 60 years old, finally faded in o obsolescence. Dictaphone introduced its famous Dictabelts, using a flexible belt of plastic as a recording medium. In advertisements the businessman having trouble getting a secretary to take dictation was told to “Give her a belt” instead. Edison followed with its Diamond Disc machine, which recorded on flat plastic discs which looked much like 45 RPM records. A similar machine was called the Gray Audograph, which used an 8-inch disc that recorded 20 minutes per side. When wire recorders were first introduced in 1945, the modern era of dictation equipment began. Today, most dictation machines still use magnetic media, but it is only a matter of time until all-digital systems take over.

With modern machines, dictation systems have at last lived up to Edison’s original intention—to eliminate the need for the stenographer. Indeed, in today’s offices, shorthand is fast becoming a lost art. The future of dictation systems lies in digital technology. When you consider the possibilities in that field, we can now foresee time when dictation systems will eliminate the need for the typist as well.

Editor’s Note: Darryl Rehr is a professional journalist based in Los Angeles. Since 1984, he has been an avid collector of antique typewriters, and has written extensively on the history of office technology. He is editor of ETCetera, a journal of the Early Typewriter Collectors Association, founded in 1987 as a forum for those interested in this intriguing subject.

Rehr’s new book, “Antique Typewriters and Office Technology,” was released in July. It is a comprehensive identification and value guide, extensively illustrated with more than 340 color photos. It is an ideal reference for office equipment businesses, which often receive inquiries from customers on sources for selling antique machines.

Copies are available from the author at $19.95 + $2 postage in the U.S. Write to: Darryl Rehr, PO Box 641824, Los Angeles, CA 90064. Tel. (310)477-5229.

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