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A Small Convenience That Changed Everything: The History of Voicemail

The journey of answering machines from voicemail to voice messaging and beyond.

A Small Convenience That Changed Everything: The History of Voicemail
Recording tape Vova Krasilnikov/pexels

“Please leave your message after the beep”— sounds familiar? Why wouldn’t it be? After all, the answering machine is the precursor to the voicemail service — one of the most-used but least-discussed innovations of the 20th century. The use of voicemail is very common among landline and cellphone users, and even today, many small and large businesses around the globe trust a form of voicemail to conveniently communicate with their customers.  

Voicemail is essentially the same as the answering machine—a recording device that stores messages after a missed call. However, while answering machine messages are stored and accessed locally, voicemail messages are stored in a distant location, and can be accessed from anywhere.

With the advent of smartphones, texting gained popularity over voicemail. Despite this, voicemail is still used by billions of people. Over the years, it has evolved into versions such as voice messaging, Google Voice, etc, which are more compatible with today’s internet generation and new trends in the world of communication.  

Who invented voicemail?

A Small Convenience That Changed Everything: The History of Voicemail
Source: Kenneth Martin/flickr

The voicemail system was created in the 1970s by Gordon Mathews (sometimes dubbed the Father of Voice Mail), an entrepreneur and inventor who also founded Voice Mail Express (VMX), the world’s first voicemail system manufacturer. He applied for his first patent in 1979 and sold his first VMX voicemail system to the 3M company the following year.

These first voice mail machines did not actually answer the telephone. The system allowed employees to leave a message for other employees only without ringing the telephone. The earliest voice mail machines were also huge — about as large as several refrigerators. By 1992, the machines had shrunk to the size of a filing cabinet.

A Small Convenience That Changed Everything: The History of Voicemail
Source: History Scoper

Of course, telephone answering machines existed long before the development of the VMX voicemail system. In 1898, Valdemar Poulsen invented a device called telegraphone that was equipped with a magnetic recorder. The magnetic recording technique from Poulsen’s invention would eventually lead to the development of the answering machine. 

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In 1935, Swiss inventor Willy Müller successfully created the first automatic answering machine — although this invention had portability issues because of its three-foot height and complex structure. In the years that followed, the answering machine model developed by Müller underwent various changes. In 1949, Joseph Zimmerman and George W. Danner came up with the Electronic Secretary that turned out to be the first commercially successful answering machine.

Another successful answering machine was the Ansafone model of the Phonetel company. Ansafone was designed by a Japanese inventor, Dr. Kazuo Hashimoto, and launched in the US market in 1960. 

By the 1970s the telephone answering machines had become small enough and affordable enough for home use, and they rapidly gained popularity in American households, even as the newly invented commercial voicemail systems were too expensive for anyone but large companies to be interested in buying. In the early 1980s, twenty hours of storage capacity cost around $180,000, but this had been reduced to $13,000 by 1992.

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When did Voicemail become popular?

A Small Convenience That Changed Everything: The History of Voicemail
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/pexels

Voicemail systems brought a revolution in the field of digital voice recording. It was an advanced device that delivered better sound quality and more features than the old-fashioned answering machines, but due to its high cost, the voicemail system was way beyond the reach of the general public.

The playing field was leveled with the introduction of PC-based voice processing boards, first developed in 1982 by tech products manufacturer Dialogic Corporation. The new PC boards enabled computer developers to install voicemail software on desktop computers. This development significantly brought down the cost of voicemail systems and they soon took the communication industry by storm. 

Apart from big corporations, voicemail was now being used by small businesses and common households. It was a user-friendly, secure, multi-functional recording system that offered great convenience to the callers.

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One study revealed that by 2004, 78% of Americans had voicemail. It completely replaced the traditional answering machines in the late 1990s and became the new digital answering system of the early 21st century. 

Difference between answering machine and voicemail

A Small Convenience That Changed Everything: The History of Voicemail
Source: Julian Hochgesang/Unsplash

Both voicemail and answering machines allow users to record voice messages but there are numerous differences between the two:

  • The old-fashioned answering machine is a physical device that exists either as a part of the landline phone or as separate equipment. Users can access their messages only from their own answering machine. Whereas voicemail is a service that operates over a network or server, therefore a voicemail user can securely access their messages even from a remote location and using any device, using their numeric access code.
  • If a recipient is on another call then, in the case of most answering machines, the caller is unable to record a message. Voicemail, in contrast, allows callers to record and send messages even when the recipient is busy on a different call.   
    A Small Convenience That Changed Everything: The History of Voicemail
    Source: Kitsya/Wikimedia Commons
  • The old answering machines didn’t use any caller ID features to avoid spam messages and identify the caller.
  • You can listen to all your messages on the answering machine by simply pressing the play button, but with voicemail, you use multiple keypad commands to perform different messaging functions as well. As with answering machines, voicemail allows you to archive, save, or delete any message you want, plus you can also forward a voice message to other users. Some voicemail services also offer an ‘urgent’ option so that callers are alerted as to which messages are most important to hear first. 
  • The numeric access code makes voicemail a safer and private mode of communication, as no one can access your voicemail without the access code, while with an answering machine, all one needs to do is press the play button.

Some cool facts related to voicemail

A Small Convenience That Changed Everything: The History of Voicemail
Source: Miryam Leon/Unsplash

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 90s likely remembers how voicemail was considered an essential service in American households.

  • Famous American inventor, Thomas Alva Edison created the phonograph while working on improvements to the telephone. It failed to develop as an answering machine, but later became the Gramophone.
  • Willy Müller’s three-foot-tall automatic answering machine, developed in 1935, was a sensation among Orthodox Jews, who weren’t allowed to pick up the phone on the Sabbath. 
    A Small Convenience That Changed Everything: The History of Voicemail
    Source: Elviss Railijs Bitāns/pexels
  • Initially, phone companies weren’t allowed to provide voicemail service on their devices, but a ruling in 1988 by Judge Harold H. Greene revoked this restriction. Greg Carr and Scott Jones, founders of the Boston Technology company saw this court decision as a market opportunity and in 1988, they launched and sold their first voicemail service to telecom companies.
  • In the 1980s, when voicemail had just started to grow, more than 30 companies, including IBM, AT&T, Genesis, and Octel, were in tight competition to grab the maximum share of the voicemail market. However, only a few of them are still active in today's voicemail business landscape.

While the old voicemail systems have become obsolete and the landline-based voicemail service is not much used anymore, voicemail has not lost its relevance. Voice-messaging continues today in popular applications such as Whatsapp, Facebook, Skype, etc. 

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