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If I decide to keep my landline, I am seriously considering going back to a physical answering machine because I have paid for one about 100 times over courtesy of the monthly tithe to Bell for my ‘invisible’ answering machine. What used to cost about a dollar a month has crept up to about ten dollar’s worth of ‘convenience’ that probably costs them about .001 of a cent to deliver. I guess that’s why BCE has a few spare billion burning a hole it in its pocket.

Anyhow, in the manner of many things that didn’t get off the ground commercially for many years after they became technically feasible, the first answering machine was invented in 1898 by Valedemar Poulsen , which would have made him a contemporary of Herman Hollerith. Apparently the first answering machines came on the market in the 1960’s but failed to get any traction due to the $200 price tag and, in my opinion, lack of a value proposition.

I did not encounter an answering machine until 1979. At that time they were about the size of a hard cover Stephen King novel and had two separate tapes: one for the outgoing message and one for the incoming calls. The really fancy ones had an indicator that showed how many messages had been received. They still weren’t very cheap so there was a brisk business in answering machine rental. I rented one when I was looking for a job so prospective employers could reach me if I wasn’t home (because why on earth would I care about anyone else trying to reach me if I wasn’t home – they could just call back when I was available to talk to them).

Answering machines came with a manual that included instructions on how to record the outgoing tape. Not just the mechanics of making the recording but also what to say on your outbound message. This was the 1980s equivalent of establishing ‘hello’ as a standard greeting when answering the telephone (otherwise, if Mr. Bell had prevailed, we would all be saying ‘ahoy’). Since answering machine protocol was still somewhat of a novelty, here are some of the things the manual suggested:

1. Include some background music so that the caller knows that their call has been connected. I’m guessing this was intended to emulate ‘on hold’ muzak so that the caller didn’t think the phone had stop ringing without being answered. They recommended holding the machine close to your record player to capture a few bars of some soothing music. I of course used Pachelbel’s Canon.

2. Instruct people to “please leave a message after the tone”. This instruction on outgoing messages has persisted way beyond its necessity (much like the airline instructions on how to fasten your seatbelt) and I am sure that we have cumulatively lost many hours listening to useless instructions before being able to get to the point.

Despite the issue that physical tapes had the bad habit of running out or self-destructing, there were some very good things about physical answering machines.

They replaced the ‘while you were out’ slip. We each had one on our desk at my second first job in 1985, which was revolutionary mostly because people could actually leave a meaningful message about what they needed you for, which was impossible to do in pink slip mode. To this day it drives me crazy when people leave a work message that simply says ‘call me’, with no notion of topic for discussion or level of urgency.

You could screen your calls. Call display only does part of the job: it might tell you who is calling but not why. With a physical answering machine you don’t need call display, because if you don’t feel like answering you can just let it go to message, listen in to the recording and interrupt if you think it is worthy. Of course you need to cover for your eavesdropping by sounding breathless from either running downstairs or dashing in from the front door to intercept the call.

You could remove the tapes. Although the invisible answering machine has an annoying habit of deleting messages after a certain number of days, I am sure that there are methods in cyberspace to recover the messages at will. With the physical machine, tapes could be swapped out whenever you wanted to keep or destroy them. This came in handy if you needed evidence or wanted to remove evidence. Something I of course never needed to do.