Dictation Machines: From Wax to Wire, Belt to Digital
By Neal McChristy
It wasn't long ago that some of the recording and dictating devices at Electronic Office Systems in Independence, Mo. were on just about every desk in an office, but now it's mostly recognized by the middle-aged office workers who used to use it.
"Most people don't even know what they're looking at," said Mike Schulze, who is the service manager for the company.
An Edison wax-cylinder recording device is on display, along with a Chicago Webster wire-recorder (date on it is 1946). There is an Edison dictating machine with red recordable disks and machines that use belts, illustrating the history of the dictation device. [Click here to listen to the 1946 Webster Chicago Wire Recorder.]
Thomas Edison invented his phonograph as a piece of office equipment in 1877. But it was Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who teamed up with Charles Sumner Tainter to make an electric motor driven device with wax as the recording medium. It was called a Graphophone and was patented in 1886. Edison didn't bring his phonograph to market until 1888.
The company that was set up to market Bell's invention eventually became the International Dictaphone Corporation.
As clumsy storage batteries gave way to electrical power and business people began to know how to use them, dictation equipment use spread.
The Dictaphone Corporation was organized in 1907 after being purchased from Bell and Tainter.
Other developments at this time were popularizing a different voice-recording invention. The wire recorder was first invented by a U.S. mechanical engineer named Oberlin Smith, inspired by a visit to Edison's laboratories.
The device was re-invented by a Dane, Valdemar Poulsen, as a telephone recorder. Poulsen also demonstrated steel tape recorders and a machine to record magnetically on a steel disk. All three were promoted as alternatives to the phonograph-type dictating machines.
When the vacuum tube arrived in the '20s, that was adapted for use in the dictating devices. A German inventor and entrepreneur, Curt Stille, modified Poulsen's Telegraphone for use with an amplifier.
A German electrical manufacturer and a German chemical firm, I.G. Farben used iron-oxide magnetic tape in the '30s. There was also a tape designed powdered steel on paper. Bell Telephone Laboratories had initiated a research effort in magnetic recording in 1930 and designed several steel tape machines that were not marketed.
Edison's electronic dictating machine was called the Voice Writer (as in the Electronic Office Systems collection). The Time-Master dictation machine was introduced in 1947 by Dictaphone, replacing the wax cylinder with the plastic Dictabelt Record. Edison followed with its Diamond Disc device that used a record-type device.
Edison was the first to use reel-to-reel tape, said Schulze.
Magnetic media, including belts and cassettes, were introduced in the early '70s, replacing the embossed media of the '50s and '60s. Edison was ahead of Dictaphone in magnetic recording, Schulze said. Lanier bought out Edison in 1972 and introduced the cassette as the record media. Schulze said the standardization of media propelled the company from number seven to number one.
While dictation machines are becoming more computerized in offices now, the technology is active even as the traditional secretarial jobs become faded roses.
Ed Knisley, president of Electronic Office Systems, says they have dictating devices in medical, legal, banking and insurance areas. Another part of their business is training people to use computerized devices and related equipment.
Digital dictation devices are replacing the analog devices, but they sell analog devices that use mini-cassettes. Electronic Office Systems are the Lanier distributor in Kansas City.
The company, founded in 1964, also has a large part of its business as taping devices that log ambulance, fire and emergency calls, Schulze said.
The dictation-device industry, which has experienced a number of changes, could be revolutionized by voice-recognition technology, Knisley says, but not yet perfected.
In specific applications, such as emergency rooms and in mental health, voice-recognition software is about 80 percent accurate, according to Knisley, although it still needs editing.
Editor's Note: If anyone is interested in contacting Ed Knisley or Mike Schulze about the collection, they can be reached at 3855 S. Northern, Independence, MO 64052, phone (816) 358-8020.
Information for the historical part of this article is from: The WWW at
"Antique Typewriters and Office Technology," a book by Darryl C. Rehr, P.O. Box 641824, Los Angeles, Calif. 90064.