Answering machine

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"Answerphone" redirects here. For the song by Nicholas McDonald, see Answerphone (song).
A dual compact cassette tape based Panasonic answering machine
An endless-loop outgoing message tape used in dual-cassette-based answering machines

The answering machine, answerphone or message machine, also known as the telephone answering machine (or TAM) in the UK and some Commonwealth countries, ansaphone or ansafone (from a trade name), or telephone answering device (TAD) is a device for answering telephones and recording callers' messages.[1]

Unlike voicemail, which can be a centralized or networked system that performs a similar function, an answering machine must be set up in the user's premises alongside — or incorporated within — the user's telephone.


The tape answering machine records and replays sound using a technique originally invented in 1898 by Valdemar Poulsen[2] which was the first practical device used for recording telephone conversations. Poulsen's device, known as a telegraphone or 'wire recorder', laid the foundation for the invention of the answering machines used today (though it was also used to record dictation and even music.)[3] The creation of the first practical automatic answering device for telephones is in dispute. Clarence Hickman worked for Bell Laboratories from 1930 where he developed methods for the magnetic recording and working on the recognition of speech patterns and electromechanical switching systems.[4] In 1934 he developed a tape-based answering machine which the phone company AT&T, as the owner of Bell Laboratories, kept under wraps for years for fears that an answering machine would result in fewer telephone calls.[5] Many claim it was William Muller in 1935, but it could have been created already in 1931 by William Schergens whose device used phonographic cylinders.[6] Ludwig Blattner promoted a telephone answering machine in 1929 based on his Blattnerphone magnetic recording technology.[7]

A commercial answering machine offered in the US in 1949, the Tel-Magnet, which played the outgoing message and recorded the incoming message on a magnetic wire. It was priced at $200 but was not a commercial success.[8]

In 1949 the first commercially successful answering machine was the Electronic Secretary created by inventor Joseph Zimmerman and businessman George W. Danner, who founded Electronic Secretary Industries in Wisconsin. The Electronic Secretary used the then 'state-of-the-art' technology of a 45 rpm record player for announcements and a wire recorder for message capture and playback. Electronic Secretary Industries was purchased in 1957 by General Telephone and Electronics.[9][10][11] Another commercially successful answering machine was the Ansafone created by inventor Dr. Kazuo Hashimoto, who was employed by a company called Phonetel. This company began selling the first answering machines in the US in 1960.[3]

While early answering machines used magnetic tape technology, most modern equipment uses solid state memory storage; some devices use a combination of both, with a solid state circuit for the outgoing message and a cassette for the incoming messages. In 1983, Kazuo Hashimoto received a patent for a digital answering machine architecture with US Patent 4,616,110.[12] The first digital answering machine brought to the market was AT&T's 1337; an activity led by Trey Weaver. Mr. Hashimoto sued AT&T but quickly dropped the suit because the AT&T architecture was significantly different from his patent.[13]


On a two-cassette answerphone, there is an outgoing cassette, usually a special endless loop tape on earlier machines (before the rise of microcassettes), which after a certain number of rings plays a pre-recorded message to the caller. Once the message is complete, the outgoing cassette stops and the incoming cassette starts recording the caller's message, and then stops when the caller hangs up.

Single-cassette answering machines contain the outgoing message at the beginning of the tape and incoming messages on the remaining space. They first play the announcement, then fast-forward to the next available space for recording, then record the caller's message. If there are many previous messages, fast-forwarding through them can cause a significant delay.

An answerphone may have a remote listening facility whereby the answerphone owner can ring the home number and, by either sending tones down the line using a special device, or by entering a code on the remote telephone's keypad, can listen to messages when away from home.

Most modern answering machines have a system for greeting. The owner may record a message that will be played back to the caller, or an automatic message will be played if the owner does not record one. Answering machines can usually be programmed to take the call at a certain number of rings. This is useful if the owner is screening calls and does not wish to speak with all callers.

Many devices offer a "toll saver" function, whereby the machine answers only after several rings (typically four) if no messages have been left, but answers after a smaller number of rings (usually two) if there are messages. This allows the owner to find out whether there are messages waiting; if there are none, he or she can hang up the phone on the third ring without incurring a call charge.

Some machines also allow themselves to be activated, if they have been switched off, by calling and allowing the phone to ring a certain large number of times (usually 10-15).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ TheFreeDictionary > answering machine Citing: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009.
  2. ^ Dr Naughton, Russell. "A D V E N T U R E S in C Y B E R S O U N D". Retrieved 27 May 2014. 
  3. ^ a b "The History of... Answering Machines". Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau. Retrieved 27 May 2014. 
  4. ^ Clemons, Elizabeth G. "CLARENCE HICKMAN AND CHARLES STODDARD PAPERS, 1886–1999" (PDF). Retrieved 13 August 2015. 
  5. ^ Wu, Tim. "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires". Retrieved 13 August 2015. 
  6. ^ Popular Mechanics. Hearst Magazines. ISSN 0032-4558. Retrieved 24 January 2016. 
  7. ^ 1929:Answering Machine : IN OUR PAGES:100, 75 AND 50 YEARS AGO New York Times, 10 Oct 1929, reprinted 11 Oct 2004, retrieved 7 November 2014.
  8. ^ "Robot Takes Messages". Popular Science. May 1949. 
  9. ^ David L. Danner, IDEAMATICS, In., McLean, VA
  11. ^ Electronic Tele-Communications, Inc. "Corporate History". Retrieved 24 January 2016. 
  12. ^ "Patent US4616110 - Automatic digital telephone answering apparatus". 
  13. ^ About Inventor Benjamin Thornton

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