Inventing the Dictation Machine

For over a century, business offices around the world used mechanical dictation equipment to try to speed up the process of memo and letter-writing, and to lower its cost. Dictation machines were a specialized form of sound recording, in fact office dictation was one of the first commercial applications for sound recording in the 19th century, before the music business overshadowed it. The following pages outline the technological history of the office dictation machine. I also recommend having a look at my history of the dictation machine industry, and also my section on office dictation as it relates to the roles of women and men in American businesses.

Bismarck dictating a letter

The traditional way of taking dictation was to speak it aloud to a secretary. The inventors of dictation equipment aimed to mechanize the process, but throughout the history of the dictation machine, the main competition came from such live secretaries.



Edison foresaw many uses for his phonograph, invented in 1877, and the licensee of his patents proposed using the phonograph for entertainment, but the first commercial phonographs that his company manufactured were intended for office dictation. Part of the reason for this was competition.

The early graphophone

Edison was put the phonograph aside for about a decade while he was involved in other projects, and in the mean-time a comopeting invention had come along in the form of the Graphophone. Invented in Washington, D.C. in 1888, the graphophone would, in an indirect way, become the basis of the Columbia Phonograph Company. But in its early years, this company made sound recording/reproducing equipment for dictation purposes.

Although purists might kick me for saying so, the graphophone and phonograph were nearly identical in their construction and basic principles. Both recorded sound by capturing it from the air, and using the minute energy of sound waves to activate a tiny stylus, engraving or incising a groove into a soft recording medium.

1877 Phonograph

Edison's "Improved Phonograph" of 1877

Edison originally used sheets of tinfoil (which, he reckoned, a businessman could fold up and mail in an envelope--the first "voice mail"). The graphophone relied on a wax-coated cardboard tube, because the inventors found that a wax record reproduced sound with greater clarity.

The graphophone's designers sought to avoid infringing on Edison's key patents by recording onto the wax with a "side-to-side" motion, rather than an up-and-down motion, and but carving the groove into the wax instead of merely indenting the medium as in the Edison machine. This seemingly minor difference set of an ongoing patent battle that lasted for years.

Furthermore, for the next several decades, Edison phonograph records (including those introduced later, for entertainment) were recorded with this same "hill and dale" recording method, while nearly all other competitors adopted the "lateral" or side-to-side groove. In the era of high fidelity, music enthusiasts would claim that the Edison method was technically superior, and that it had been a mistake to do it any other way. But that's another story.