The Evolution of Technology: The Answering Machine

Category: Evolution of Technology Series, Weekly Columns

The Evolution of Technology series continues with The Answering Machine. Professor David E. Weber will largely write this column, with an introduction and closing by me. I have to include a short video of a message that Professor left – years ago – which he probably doesn’t even remember leaving on his answering machine.

It was when the musical “Annie” had first opened on Broadway and its signature song, “Tomorrow,” was literally all over the place. David co-opted that song for his own message, which for reasons I just don’t understand, I remember clearly. Why I remember that and can’t remember someone’s name, phone number, or what I did just yesterday is just one of those life mysteries. My rendition of his message is at the end of the column.

So, without further pre-amble, here are Professor’s Weber’s recollections and thoughts about answering machines:

My first encounter with a telephone answering machine occurred in roughly 1967. I called my classmate Mike one evening. His home phone picked up, and through my receiver came an outgoing message that, at literally two to three minutes long, would seem interminable to us today.

The voice was Stan’s—Mike’s dad. In the earliest years of answering machines, the husband and father—the man of the house—recorded the outgoing messages, a task considered in that era too technically sophisticated for mere women to perform.

Stan enunciated every word—every syllable—meticulously and soberly: “This…is…an…electronic…answering machine…that AUTO-MATIC-‘LY…an-swers the phone…and re-cords…your mess-age for us….We are cur-rent-ly… A-WAY from home…and you…are now list-en-ing…to an AUTO-MATIC…,” blah blah blah. Stan then gave instructions for what to do—“Lis-ten…for…the…beep-ing sound…and then SLOW-LY and DIS-TINCT-LY…CLEARLY state your name…phone num-ber…time and date of your call…and a BRIEF mes-sage,” and so on.

Before Stan’s “good…bye” drifted from the phone in a spooky monotone, he closed by repeating, “This…is…an…electronic…answering machine…that AUTO-MATIC-‘LY…,” and repeated his message short of giving the instructions again. I actually handwrote brief notes—“name,” “time” and the rest—to ensure I would not inadvertently exclude a single vital piece of information Stan had requested. “This…is…DA-VID…WE-BER…,” I intoned, “the time is…EX-ACTLY…se-ven twenty-two…pee-emm…,” and I probably said it all twice.

Within ten years, answering machines were not rare. You may recall that by the late 1970s, the trend was to leave “cute” or “clever” outgoing messages that, in retrospect, seldom met even the lowest standards of charm or wit. I hesitate to confess one of mine, but for the sake of illustration: during Thanksgiving season 1978, my outgoing message had me playing the part of a turkey, out of breath, trying to evade the axe wielded by me. I changed my outgoing message every couple of months, not just to coincide with the season but to give me an opportunity to create brief thirty- or forty-five second radio dramas, essentially.

Kenny, a friend and actor, would call simply to leave long, improvised stream-of-consciousness commentaries—all of them hilarious, containing provocative images and ideas you would never think of combining, and all in the poorest taste possible.

By the late 1980s, the devices had become ubiquitous. I once called a colleague and her teenage son picked up, answering dully, “H’lo?” I asked for his mom, who he said had gone out somewhere. I asked if he’d mind taking a message. “Uh, why’n’t you put it on the ans’ring machine,” he proposed, “just call back right away ‘n’ I won’t pick up.” I felt insulted and felt like giving this sociopath a lesson in civility. Yet not too long after that, I would, when a kid answered the phone, routinely suggest, “Why don’t we hang up, I’ll call right back, and leave a message for your mom on the machine.” This actually illustrates how our technology is seldom used solely the way we first designed it. The telephone itself was envisioned by Edison as a device by which people would listen to music, which would be played by an orchestra at the other end of the line (He also unsuccessfully lobbied Americans to answer their phones with “Ahoy!”).

Now, of course, even the term “answering machine” has become outdated. Even landline systems offer voicemail functions that do what an answering machine does. In about 2007 I bought the cordless landline phone I still use at home if I’m not using my mobile phone. It came with a voicemail function built into the base unit, so no need to have purchased a separate answering machine. I suspect that dedicated answering machines will sooner rather than later go the way of cassette recorders, for example: available only in a handful of stores (and of course on eBay!), from only a few manufacturers and in only a couple of models or configurations.

Thanks, Professor Weber. I relate and remember so many similar things about answering machines when we first got them. My cousin Sandy, to this day, still speaks very slowly whenever he leaves a voice message on my cell-phone. It reminds me of the that great scene in “Singin’ In the Rain” when talkies are first introduced at the studio exec’s house and a funny-looking “professor” explains how they work:

Anyway, as promised at the beginning of this column in my introduction, here is my rendition of Professor Weber’s early message on his own answering machine, long before he was a Professor and when “Annie” has just come out:

 

  • ginavalley

    Love your song/video message! Too funny.  Been a long time since “fun” messages were all the rage.  I think  we’ve lost creativity with our voice mail messages.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Thx Gina! I was wondering if anyone would get that far!

      • ginavalley

        I’m annoyingly thorough that way 😉

        • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

          Good! Then I’m counting on you to point out my typos, too!

          • ginavalley

            I’m such a grammar Nazi! It takes all of my self-control not to let my OCD side holler out at people about those things.

          • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

            HOLLER away (at me)…I’m always striving for improvement. I know I have a “voice” but I also never did well in basic English!

          • ginavalley

            Lol! Be careful what you wish for! 🙂

          • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

            If you got the time, I got the fingers to fix my typos!

    • David Weber

      Gina, you’re right, I haven’t heard a “novelty” outgoing message in many years.  I know I have retired from the goofy-outgoing-message business!  One outpost of the genre may be found listening to the radio show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” on NPR.  Callers who win the quiz rounds get as a prize the privilege of having Carl Kassell record an outgoing message for your voicemail.

      • ginavalley

        What a fun idea!

  • David Weber

    Bruce, I would not have remembered the “Annie” parody if you hadn’t performed it…but now I indeed DO remember using that for a period of a few weeks or a couple of months.  I look forward to our next collaboration on these Evolution of Technology columns.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      I was hoping that would be a pleasant surprise for you, Professor! 

  • http://cirquedumot.com/new-readers/ Susan Silver

    It is amazing how voice mail kind of rooted telephone communication as a tool beyond simple communication. Now you could leave messages when people were not home to hear it. Allowing for embarrassing drunk calls to your ex. God knows we need those moments, just for the laughs.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Communication is always evolving, but NOTHING beats real life conversation IMO!

    • David Weber

      Mobile telecommunications has of course given us “drunk dialing.”  I have never done this but it’s probably more a function of age and, since about 1990, drinking only moderately whenever I drank. I did, however, make indignant calls aimed at comeuppance when I was a youngblood and drank IMmoderately.  With old-school land lines you had to get up to get to a phone and might soon  say to yourself, “Geez, do I really need to make this call?” The immediacy of a mobile phone means  you can give in to your most combative feelings instantly.  Hey, that would be the basis of a great horror/thriller movie: A guy or girl gets drunk and drunk-dials his or her ex; but dials the wrong number, and gets a psycho man or woman, who thereupon tries to stalk the caller. Seth Rogen and Claire Danes as the exes, and either Jeremy Davies or (in a cast-against-type move) Keira Knightley as the psycho.

  • http://www.dadblunders.com/ dadblunders

    I was ahead of you on this one! I mentioned in my last post to you when you were talking about phones! I remember out first answering machine and the SIZE of it (now that I think about it I recall a television we had that was HUGE but the set was tiny ….a console) The technology of the answering machine made us lazy! I remember “just let the machine get it” so we didn’t have to be bothered with the phone.

    It’s amazing how far technology has brought us…..you need to do one on text messaging now Bruce….people are forgetting that phones actually make phone calls. I discovered that my wife actually didn’t know how to look up a phone number on her cell because she always text people instead….sigh….

    Aaron

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Why don’t YOU write the text messaging one, Aaron? For me! It doesn’t really fit the “nostalgia” vein of these columns, but if you did the evolution of it from its origins to now, it would potentially breathe NEW life into this series!?

      • http://www.dadblunders.com/ dadblunders

         I would love to write that! I will shoot you an email me about here in a bit….

        Aaron

    • David Weber

      I was unaware of the dominance of texting as a telecommunications mode until somewhat recently when I was reading how people are more and more choosing phones and phone plans based on texting capabilities and accommodations of various systems.  I probably send a text message once every few weeks or couple of months, so for me a mobile phone must have a satisfactory voice capability. My current smart phone does not and it is a continual source of frustration for me.

      • http://www.dadblunders.com/ dadblunders

        David,

        It really has become a dominant feature in communication. It even changes the way people communicate by shortening word forms to fit into a simple text message more and more. I am always wondering what it will be like when my son is grown,  Will he even know that a phone was actually to talk on….lol

        Aaron

        • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

          Aaron, there was an incredible WSJ article about how college students just didn’t know how to spell certain words because they’d never actually read them in full! They’d either heard them, seen them in acronyms, or simply just messed them up so bad it was extremely funny. When you do the SMS column for us, you might want to find and reference that column. It was hysterical!

          • http://www.dadblunders.com/ dadblunders

             Bruce,

            Thank you for that. I hadn’t seen the article but I am going to look for it now. It definitly sounds like a winner and one to use for the article!

            Aaron

          • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

            If you can’t find it, let me know and I’ll help look for it, Aaron…I know it was included in a #DadChat so I could go through the transcripts, but THAT is a pain…

  • http://twitter.com/JoeCascio Joe Cascio

    What I remember about the answering machine’s popularization was how many older people found them offensive and refused to leave a message, saying they wouldn’t “talk to a machine.” Then of course, the merits begin to dawn on them and they accept it, albeit grudgingly. 

    I get the same reaction from people who don’t carry a smart phone now or won’t use text messaging, which is one of the best things to happen to communication since the telephone. When one of my golf buddies needled me the other day about being “one of those people who can’t live without their phone”, I smiled and thought of The Borg on Star Trek.

    Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Yes Joe! That’s a great point. My parents resisted almost every new technology advance, especially learning how to program a VCR! 

    • David Weber

      I have a friend named James who refuses to get a mobile phone of any kind, never mind a smart phone…although he DOES have an iPad.  James  says that the refusal to get a mobile phone is by now simply a matter of pride.  I remember how back in about 1980, before I left this country for several years, I bought a new portable electric typewriter. Soon thereafter I began hearing about and reading about this endeavor called word processing.  I remember thinking, “Why would I ever want to get involved with that mess? I have this great typewriter that does everything I could ever want to do in writing.”

      • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

        To me, that is simply mis-placed pride and denies him and his friends/family the joys of better communication: HIS loss!

  • Alyse

    Dave! You have a great voice. Cleaver message he left. One that always sticks with me is the one ‘George’ did on Seinfeld. Do you remember this.. 
    http://pinterest.com/pin/28006828903688601/

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      The funny thing, Alyse, is that Dave had actually forgotten that message so he was completely surprised when I put it in HIS post!

    • David Weber

      Thanks, Alyse.  The vidclip from Seinfeld was outstanding.  I had NOT seen it.  Very funny stuff.  The thing about novelty outgoing messages is that if you hear them once, fine; but if you are a frequent caller, they’re excruciating.  What I don’t understand is why there is no function that some technology company has developed to push a button and click over the outgoing message on your end (as a caller) to get to the incoming message space.

      • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

        Great point about having to hear a “clever” outgoing message repeatedly David!

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