Dictation machine

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Transcribing dictation with a Dictaphone wax cylinder dictation machine, in the early 1920s. Note supply of extra wax cylinders on lower part of stand.

A dictation machine is a sound recording device most commonly used to record speech for later playback or to be typed into print. It includes digital voice recorders and tape recorders.

The name "Dictaphone" is a trademark of the company of the same name, but has also become a common term for all dictation machines, as a genericized trademark.


Alexander Graham Bell and his two associates took Edison's tinfoil phonograph and modified it considerably to make it reproduce sound from wax instead of tinfoil. They began their work at Bell's Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C., in 1879, and continued until they were granted basic patents in 1886 for recording in wax.[1]

Thomas A. Edison dictating in 1907.

Thomas A. Edison had invented the phonograph in 1877, but the fame bestowed on him for this invention — sometimes called his most original — was not due to its efficiency. Recording with his tinfoil phonograph was too difficult to be practical, as the tinfoil tore easily, and even when the stylus was properly adjusted, its reproduction of sound was distorted and squeaky, and good for only a few playbacks. Although Edison had hit upon the secret of sound recording, immediately after his discovery he did not improve it, allegedly because of an agreement to spend the next five years developing the New York City electric light and power system.[1]

By 1881 the Volta associates had succeeded in improving an Edison tinfoil machine to some extent. Wax was put in the grooves of the heavy iron cylinder, and no tinfoil was used. The basic distinction between the Edison's first phonograph patent, and the Bell and [Charles Sumner] Tainter patent of 1886 was the method of recording. Edison's method was to indent the sound waves on a piece of tin-foil, while Bell and Tainter's invention called for cutting, or "engraving", the sound waves into a wax record with a sharp recording stylus.[1]

Among the later improvements by the Volta Associates, the Graphophone used a cutting stylus to create lateral zig-zag grooves of uniform depth into the wax-coated cardboard cylinders, rather than the up-and-down vertically-cut grooves of Edison's contemporary phonograph machine designs.[1][2]

Dictaphone cylinder dictation machine from early 1920s.

Notably, Bell and Tainter developed wax-coated cardboard cylinders for their record cylinders, instead of Edison's cast iron cylinder, covered with a removable film of tinfoil (the actual recording medium, which was prone to damage during installation or removal.[3] Tainter received a separate patent for a tube assembly machine to automatically produce the coiled cardboard tubes, which served as the foundation for the wax cylinder records.

Besides being far easier to handle, the wax recording medium also allowed for lengthier recordings and created superior playback quality.[3] Additionally the Graphophones initially deployed foot treadles to rotate the recordings, then wind-up clockwork drive mechanisms, and finally migrated to electric motors, instead of the manual crank that was used on Edison's phonograph.[3] The numerous improvements allowed for a sound quality that was significantly better than Edison's machine.

Edison Voicewriter from about 1950

Shortly after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, the first device for recording sound, in 1877, he thought that the main use for the new device would be for recording speech in business settings. (Given the low audio fidelity of earliest versions of the phonograph, recording music may not have seemed to be a major application.) Some early phonographs were indeed used this way, but this did not become common until the mass production of reusable wax cylinders in the late 1880s. The differentiation of office dictation devices from other early phonographs, which commonly had attachments for making one's own recordings, was gradual. The machine marketed by the Edison Records company was trademarked as the "Ediphone".

Following the invention of the audion tube in 1906, electric microphones gradually replaced the purely acoustical recording methods of earlier dictaphones by the late 1930s. In 1945, the SoundScriber and Gray Audograph, which cut grooves into a plastic disc, was introduced, and two years later Dictaphone replaced wax cylinders with their Dictabelt technology, which cut a mechanical groove into a plastic belt instead of into a wax cylinder. This was later replaced by magnetic tape recording. While reel-to-reel tape was used for dictation, the inconvenience of threading tape spools led to development of more convenient formats, notably the Compact Cassette, Mini-Cassette, and Microcassette.

Olympus digital voice recorder.

Digital dictation became possible in the 1990s, as falling computer memory prices made possible pocket-sized digital voice recorders that stored sound on computer memory chips without moving parts. Many early 21st-century digital cameras and smartphones have this capability built in. In the 1990s, improvements in voice recognition technology began to allow computers to transcribe recorded audio dictation into text form, a task that previously required human secretaries or transcribers. As of 2014 the technology is not robust enough to replace human transcription in most cases.

Despite the advances in technology, analog media are still widely used in dictation recording for their flexibility, permanence, and robustness.

Common dictation formats[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Newville, Leslie J. Development of the Phonograph at Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Laboratory, United States National Museum Bulletin, United States National Museum and the Museum of History and Technology, Washington, D.C., 1959, No. 218, Paper 5, pp.69-79. Retrieved from ProjectGutenberg.org.
  2. ^ Tainter, Charles Sumner. Recording Technology History: Charles Sumner Tainter Home Notes Archived 2008-05-15 at the Wayback Machine., History Department of, University of San Diego. Retrieved from University of San Diego History Department website December 19, 2009
  3. ^ a b c Library and Archives Canada. The Virtual Gramophone: Canadian Historical Sound Recordings: Early Sound Recording and the Invention of the Gramophone, Library and Archives Canada Web site, Ottawa. Retrieved May 24, 2014.