It used to be so easy - you rang someone and if they did not answer within 10 or so rings, you simply hung up and tried later. Or if someone rang you, you picked it up and answered. You could even ignore the ringing if you wanted to - but it would drive you crazy eventually!

Now we have these choices:

  • Answer ourselves or let the answering machine do it;
  • Leave a message or make them guess who it was and what we wanted
  • Change the message daily - or only in months ending in R
  • Make the message formal, or funny, or rude, or cute, or psychotic, or suggestive

How did we get to this point?

Well, you can blame Isophone, the first real telephone answering machine. First released about 50 years ago by Buhrle and Company in Switzerland, it was able not only to record phone messages, but also allowed people to dial in from somewhere else and pick up their messages.

But the Isophone never really caught on. For one thing, it cost around $1 000, which back in the 1940s was b-i-g money. And secondly, it stood about a metre tall and weighed more than 130 kilos!

Instead, people turned to answering service operators. This became quite a status symbol. The telephone companies even had a name for these people: conversation engineers. For about $25 a month you could have your very own conversation engineer. In 1967, just in America, some 600 000 conversation engineers were employed. In west Los Angeles, one in four homes used such a service.


Phones of this era had an answering system - YOU!!


Modern answering machines are lightweight, reliable and usually digital. They have no moving parts or tapes to break down.


But in that same year, a Californian aircraft radio company called Novatech decided to create a cheap, battery-powered, open-reel telephone answering machine. A group of inventors, working in a garage, spent four years working on the project, using parts from hundreds of tiny Japanese portable tape recorders.

Their breakthrough was a 30-second continuous tape that would play the outgoing message, stop and then start recording. In 1971, they released their machine - the PhoneMate 400. This weighed less than 5 kilos, cost just $200 and could hold 20 messages. You had to wear earphones to hear your messages, it was still a major step forward.

However, the giant phone company AT&T (in the USA) tried to ban people from attaching answering machines to the phone lines. The case went to court and the judge said AT&T couldnít stop people from doing it.

The machines became more sophisticated, and new features were added. But many people still werenít sure how to handle listening to, then talking to a machine - they found it disturbingly dehumanising. And what sort of recorded greeting should you leave? Some companies specialised in making messages using copies of famous voices, such as Porky Pig.

By 1984, the microcassette arrived, followed a year later by the first synthesised voices. By 1990, most answering machines were digital, weighed under a kilo and had no moving parts. In 1993, answering machines for cordless phones were released.

At beginning of the 1990s, one home in four had an answering machine; now it is two out of three and climbing.