Today, voicemail is so well integrated with telephone service that we barely remember a time when it was a separate technology, a box that sat next to the telephone (at a time when a “telephone” was something that sat on a table, attached to the wall with a cord). And before that, there was a time when the unattended telephone simply went unanswered. In fact, for most of the history of the telephone, answering it (either in person or electronically) was optional. So from a historical perspective, we need to know why demand for automatic answering equipment appeared. Who wanted it, and why?
Apparently, everyone wanted a way to answer the phone when they could not (or did not want to) do it themselves, and it was apparent right from the start. Even in the early days of the telephone, early users sought such a device, and when they could not find it they often hired someone to take calls. Edison recognized the need right away, developing a technology designed for telephone recording in 1877, merely months later than the announcement of the telephone itself in 1876. (Unfortunately, his first telephone recorder did not work, but fortunately it could be used for other purposes. He called it the “phonograph.”)
The subsequent history of the answering machine, explored in the following pages, traces the development of equipment but focuses on the “business” history of the technology; especially the way it met with great resistance from AT&T in the U.S. Those more interested in the details of the machines themselves should also visit my History of Answering Machine Technology pages.