Retrotechtacular: The Modern Telephone

We take recorded telephone messages for granted in these days of smartphones and VOIP. Our voicemail lives on an anonymous server in a data centre in the cloud somewhere, in a flash memory chip on our DECT base station, or if we’re of a retro persuasion, on a micro-cassette. Wherever we go, we now know our calls will not go unanswered.

Today’s subject takes us back to a time when automatically recording a phone call was the last word in high technology, with British Pathé newsreel piece from 1959 entitled “Modern Telephone”. Its subject is the Ansafone J10, one of the first telephone answering machines available on the British market. After featuring a fantastic home-made Meccano answering machine with turntable recording created by a doctor, it takes us to the Ansafone factory where the twin tape mechanisms of the commercial model are assembled and tested. Finally we get to see it in use on the desk of a bona fide Captain of Industry, probably about the only sort of person who could afford an Ansafone in 1959.

Part of the film’s charm comes not from the technology but from the glimpse it gives us of 1950s Britain sanitised for the newsreel. The clipped tones, leather armchairs and bookshelves, the coal fire and the engineer in a three-piece suit. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Take a look at the film below after the break, and never take your recorded calls for granted again.

Surprisingly this appears to be the first time we’ve featured the humble answering machine here at Hackaday. We’ve seen quite a few retro phones though, including a design classic Ericofon and a Bakelite Belgian phone with GSM.

22 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Modern Telephone

    1. To be fair, the fact that it’s leaded solder doesn’t have a lot to do with their safety. It’s not like soldering causes the lead to vaporize. The fumes are from the flux.

        1. You might be. 20 years in the camera repair industry, I did my fair share of soldering (component level) without “propper” ventilation. I wasn’t sick but 2 or 3 times in that period. Even today, I’m healthier than your average p**sy, safe space young person.

          1. > Even today, I’m healthier than your average p**sy, safe space young person.

            Get off my lawn you damn kids! You really should be careful with sweeping generalizations though.

        2. When nsayer writes “I’m sure I’m not the only one who happened to fell ill once or twice after heavy soldering without proper ventilation” then I wonder who the other ones are? And what they are doing?
          If you’ve got sick from the fumes then you probably don’t know how to solder. Are you one of those people who melts the components during soldering? Are you attempting to burn away isolation from wires? You must be doing something wrong. If solder fumes can make you sick then they will do it in the long run and most certainly not directly after.

          I’ve been soldering for 35 years now. I created lot’s of smoke in my younger years, but I quickly learned when to hold my breath and what I should avoid touching with the hot iron. That I should not use flux that is meant for soldering copper pipe but most importantly, to keep the soldering iron clean. Sometimes, when I melted some plastic (by accident) the fumes could be nasty and they could even sting a little when they got into my eyes, but that’s not the way you should solder anyway. I learned not to do that and I learned to open a window, mostly to reduce the smell so my mother would not ask questions (or worried).

          Regarding your illness, perhaps you should see a doctor to check you lung capacity/functionality and in the mean while, just open a window! Don’t get me wrong, fume extraction is important, but not having any doesn’t mean that soldering is evil. Anyway, ventilation is good for all sorts of reasons, even when not soldering. Fume extraction is no replacement for ventilation, fresh air is superior to filtered air. I wonder how many people actually do proper maintenance (filter cleaning and dust removal) on their fume extractors.

          1. Just for the record, I did not say “I’m sure I’m not the only one who happened to fell ill once or twice after heavy soldering without proper ventilation.”

            Any kind of smoke can be irritating. I have a reflow oven and the fumes that come out of it don’t smell amazingly good, which gives me some incentive to open the garage door when I’m using it (or shortly after). I’ve never fallen ill to soldering fumes and have been doing it for most of my life, but I will not (nor should I) extrapolate my experience to others.

            Limiting personal exposure to combustion fumes of any kind as much as possible seems like a sensible idea to me. All I said was that the original commenter’s mention of the fumes being specifically from SnPb soldering (as opposed to RoHS) was specious.

  1. I’ve got a pre-deregulation clunker full of relays, a two reel loop for outgoing, and a cart smaller than broadcast type for incoming. Two induction motors and lotsa mechanicals. As big as an office typewriter and heavier.
    Some thought of making one of the tape drives into an Echoplex has kept it in the closet.

  2. Did you notice that the answering message on the phone had to be pre-recorded and the machine sealed to comply with GPO (Post Office) regulations so nobody could record a “rude” answering message! Times sure have changed.

  3. @1:57 the voice over says: “but they can talk to the robot answer phone”
    That’s funny, because I used to believe that calling everything a robot instead of a machine was something of this time only. I always found it annoying that these days simple machines are called robot for no real reason (other then going along with the hype). For instance, if the dishwasher was invented today it would be called a dish washing robot.

    So hearing a man in 1959 say that a “simple” answering machine is a robot answer phone, that makes me smile and proves me I’m wrong… again.

    PS: when I said simple… I meant simple according today’s standards, because for then such a machine wasn’t simple.

    1. “For instance, if the dishwasher was invented today it would be called a dish washing robot.”
      You’re probably right. It would be named either the Dishba or iWash.

  4. Even back then there were different ways of getting in touch. A Telex or telegram were options besides direct voice TX. They were better with a busy office or desk. A firm order needed only postage. Nowadays people spend 5 minutes sending a text and then say “whatever” when a reply by phone would be much quicker unless both are at a live loud concert.

      1. I Loath YouTube video posts that would take an order of magnitude less time to explain in a simple non-video (e.g., text-based) post. But hey – YouTube is EASY for Self-Absorbed people to hear themselves – over and over…

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