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On the Possibilities of an Answering Machine

February 12, 1946

Murdoch was in one of his deep scientific moods that morning.

He gets that way whenever he comes across something in current report that sparks his inscrutable imagination. On the train, all the way down from Great Neck he sat in a pool of heavy silence, pulling his dark brown stony up around his neck. It wasn’t until we got to Penn Station that I was able to get a look at the clipping he had been brooding over . . . and this is what it was.

An account of a skirmish of major proportions being fought out in Washing¬ton, having to do with a new device which is attached to the telephone and records the conversation. I didn’t get more than a quick look at It, but the way I got it, the thing works this way: You hook it onto your phone and then, when the fellow talks at the other end, this machine makes a record of everything that’s said. The projected use for it is sketched out along the lines of its importance in business. For example, you get a long distance call and the party at the other end quotes some involved figures or lists specifications for a job or something like that and you have a full record of it and can run it off later and make a copy.

I can see where this would have touched off the springs of Murdoch’s devious mind because for many years now, he’s been wondering if there hasn’t been something like that on the market. The thing he had in mind wasn’t what this is exactly. Murdoch’s invention was a device to be rigged to the phone when you go out so that if anyone calls and you’re not there to answer it, the device would automatically lift the receiver and your recorded voice would say, “Hello, the Scott’s have gone out, would you care to leave a message?” And then the calling party could say, “This is Hazel calling. Can you make it for bridge this evening? Please try to call before six to let us know.” Get the idea? Murdoch thought he could interest the telephone companies in offering it to subscribers because it would fatten business. Instead of a no-connect, which uses all the equipment and makes no charge . . . almost all calls would be completed. And the subscriber making the call wouldn’t mind because he could get his message across. A gadget like that would be particularly handy when you’re home alone and decide to take a nap. You know darn well that as soon as you doze off, the ‘phone is going to ring. Or just as you get into your tub and stretch out . . . And the hardest thing in the world to do is to hear the ‘phone ring and try to resist answering it.

With Murdoch’ s patented “nobody-homer” you could set it to the on position and go to sleep. The phone wouldn’t bother you at all and when you get up or home, or dry . . . as the case may be . . . you have a complete record of all calls.

Well, that explains in some measure why Murdoch was hip deep in scientific reflection when he saw this report from Washington. If that skirmish which has developed about it is this. The opposition claims that it’s a sneaky thing to do to record a telephone conversation when the fellow at the other end doesn’t know that everything he says is being transcribed for posterity. It could be embarrassing, I guess. But the proponents say you can get around that easily enough. The machine could be adjusted to give off soft bell-like sounds every fifteen seconds so that the calling party would know that everything he says can be used against him and he will wise up accordingly.

Another objection raised to the device is that it would violate the privacy of telephone conversations. But that is answered by parties of the first part asking just how private telephone conversations are now . . . what with the operators able to listen in and secretaries on extensions in the outer office and the great and popular indoor sport of eavesdropping on the party line. Well, that’s the way the factions are lining up. But the thing is alive with promising possibilities.

How about the fellow who calls up for a date and uses the standard harmless nuances. He says . . . “You are the only girl I would think of taking to the Spring Hop and I go for blondes especially little ones and roundish ones” and so on in that goofy vein. Why a recording of a conversation like that could ruin him! The little blonde Jane he’s trying to sell that line to could say . . . “Why, Harvey, how can you? I happen to know that you have already asked Bess Newcomb to the dance. I heard her recording of your invitation and you told her you liked them tall and willowy and brunette. You cad!” On the other hand, it might be a boon to morals and a foolproof safety valve on the trifling sweet nothings that are poured by the gallon into the phoned of any nation.