The Bad Old Days of Telephone Answering Machines

Telephone answering machines were almost a fad. They were hindered for years by not being allowed to connect to the phone lines. Then a mix of cell phones and the phone company offering voicemail made the machines all but obsolete. Unless you are really young, you probably had one at some point though. Some had digital outgoing messages and a tape to record. Some had two tapes. But did you ever have one that didn’t connect to the phone line at all? Remember, there was a time when they couldn’t. My family had one of these growing up and after doing enough research to find it in an old catalog, I decided you might like to know how it really worked.

Even if you grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, it is hard to imagine how little technology there was in an average person’s home at that time. You probably had one TV and one wired telephone. You probably had a radio or two and maybe even a record or tape player. If you were very fancy, you had a big piece of furniture that had a TV, a turntable, a radio, and a tape player in it. No cell phones, no computers, no digital assistant, and appliances were electro-mechanical and didn’t have displays. So when you saw a new piece of tech — especially if you were a kid who didn’t know what a hacker was, but still wanted to be one — it made an impression.

I still remember the first time I even saw a tape recorder. I was amazed! But a tape recorder is a far cry from a telephone answering machine.

A Bit of Background

My Dad always had a regular job and his side business. He had a lot of different side businesses at one time or another, but he was always concerned about missing a phone call from a customer. We had two phones: the old wall mount phone with a dial and another desk phone in the “store” (the front room of the house) which also had a dial — we were way too cheap to pay for TouchTone service.

Remember, there was no call waiting and getting a second phone line was out of the question for my frugal parents. So they were always nervous about keeping the phone line clear during the day. But if you had to leave, you might miss a call. What do you do about that?

Telephone Valet

Lafayette Electronics (a Radio Shack competitor) had the answer. The “Telephone Valet” could be in your home for only $99.95. You did need to add a tape recorder, though and they’d throw that in for a grand total of $139.95 — a whole $4.95 discount! These were apparently made by Crown which was a Japanese company.

The pictures don’t really do it justice (you can see a better one at RadioMuseum.org), but I can see it just as if it were before my eyes right now. The front was silver and the top and sides were faux woodgrain. To the left was an odd tape cartridge. The two rectangles to the right were very bright incandescent lights — one red and one a kind of odd green color. What you can’t see well in the catalog picture — but you can on the Radio Museum pictures — is there was a large plastic cradle that fit between the desk phone and the handset. A thick cable connected it to the main unit.

Theory of Operation

I can’t decide if the device operation was clever or a terrible hack. Do you notice that the phone is sitting on top of the device? That isn’t an artistic choice. It had to sit up there for the device to work. Remember, you can’t connect to the phone line. So when the phone rings it shakes. And the box detects that. I would assume it has some ball bearing and microswitches like a pinball machine’s tilt sensor but I was never allowed to take it apart no matter how badly I pleaded.

The phone rings. Inside the cradle is a mechanism that holds down the phone hooks. A solenoid is energized which allows the hook to come up. The cradle has a speaker lined up with the phone’s microphone and — of course — a microphone lined up with the handset earpiece. Like an acoustic coupled modem without the foam rubber. It was up to you to get it put on correctly.

The little rectangle to the left of the main box is an endless loop tape with a magnetic sensing tape on it. You couldn’t record this tape, but a little Japanese lady — well, she sounded little — would say something like “No one is home to take your call. Please leave your name and number now,” in heavily accented English. The catalog copy says it was a 60-second message, so maybe I’ve forgotten some of it. But I do remember her voice very clearly.

On the tape recorder — which was just an ordinary tape recorder — a cable connected to the line in jack and the remote jack. When the main unit detected a ringing phone, it would pop the hook, start playing the outgoing tape, and close the contact to start the tape recorder (which — hopefully — you remembered to push play and record on before you left the house).

The outgoing message would play until the tape sensor saw it was back to the start. Of course, the outgoing message got recorded on the cassette. Then the tape would record another minute. It might be someone leaving a message. It might be dead silence, or it might be a dial tone. The box didn’t know nor did it care. It just recorded for a minute. Still talking? Tough.

The message light would turn on and the tape player and hook solenoid would go back to idle. You could hear something whirring inside which could have been the tape motor, but I always assumed the internals were a timing motor with cams and microswitches. Remember, the catalog page is from 1968 and it probably wasn’t new that year, either. I doubt it had a bunch of logic circuits in it and it certainly didn’t have ICs in it of any kind at that price. The photo above isn’t, sadly, from the inside of the Telephone Valet, but it does show a similar homebrew device from 1967.

Problems

By today’s standards, it was terrible. A 60-second outgoing message is crazy. Listening to any message — even a hang up — was 2 minutes of listening to the outbound message followed by possibly the caller’s message. But the worst thing was that the ring detection was very sensitive. Slam the door? “Hello. No one is at home to take your call….” Pull a chair out near the phone? “Hello. No one…” Sneeze loudly or yell at someone in the other room? You get the idea.

Not being able to record the outbound message was annoying, as well. However, recording would have added to the price and in 1968, $100 was about $725 today. Even the $5 discount was worth more than $35 today. It is easy to see how the cam timer would work — we used to make our own cams from poker chips back in the day (for example, see page 41 of this old issue of Electronics Illustrated). So even though by today’s standards this was crude, it was a clever solution.

There were other devices like the one in the video below that used an induction sensor to detect the ringing phone. That sounds more reliable to me.

Tomorrow

Even though the catalog page is from a 1968 edition, I think we didn’t get ours until maybe 1972 or 73. I would have been 9 or 10. I would have dearly loved to disassemble it but I was still fearful from having knocked over the old Zenith TV as part of an experiment. I don’t know whatever happened to that machine. Probably at the bottom of some long-forgotten landfill by now.

You can only wonder what is going to seem quaint or antiquated in another 40 years. Already a TV with a CRT in it seems like a bad memory. I’m not sure desktop computers aren’t going to become an oddity for most of the population. Or maybe our cell phones will evolve so far that your new Apple iPhone X will be laughable. Time will tell.

By the way, the Layfayette Catalog images came from the excellent American Radio History website. If you ever get ready to throw out old radio magazines or catalogs, you should check to see if they want them first.

[Thanks for the tip about old magazines Lola!]

52 thoughts on “The Bad Old Days of Telephone Answering Machines

    1. Or AR will be a flash in the pan like QR or the Nokia n-gage. It sure is hard to tell without hindsight.

      I highly doubt a desktop will ever become rare, though. The upgradability and ability to cram in the most power and thermal management possible is just never going to go out of style for people who actually need to make use of their computers. Doing 3d design, simulation, and rendering, it makes me chuckle when people say there will be no more desktops. Nah bro, and tablets are out by the way. Except for restaurant workers perhaps. That was a false revolution.

      1. Desktops are already replaced by laptops which simply sit on the desk, and a tablet is just a laptop without a keyboard.

        For people who “need to make use of their computers”, there’s only a very narrow margin where they need just that much power that a modern laptop won’t do, but not enough to warrant moving the whole computation to a server farm (cloud computing).

    2. Yeah, I’m not getting any sort of implanted cybertechnology, and I intend to live for 50 more years. I don’t think I’ll be alone or antiquated in that time. Probably a lot of poor people won’t be able to get implanted devices, so at worst people might assume I’m not very affluent.

  1. [quote]I can’t decide if the device operation was clever or a terrible hack.[\quote]

    How about a terribly clever hack? Given the constraints it was produced under, it’s a pretty decent way of solving the problem.

    1. First answering machine I had used an acoustic coupler for the handset and a solenoid to operate the hook. Dual cassettes – two portable cassette units- and a bunch of wires-1/8 and 3/32 to each, but I don’t recall any more than that. I THINK the outgoing was endless, maybe with a control tone.

      The second was a dual cassette direct wired (Radio Shack), with endless loop for the outgoing and some way I never did suss out for remote access, as judging by the programming DIP switch sets.

    1. That quote is “purportedly” from Einstein, but not definitively proven.

      I like this one better….(on a sacred scroll hidden beneath a Golem):

      He who will find the secret of my life at his feet, him will I serve until beyond time.
      He who shall evoke me in the seventeenth century, beware! For I cannot by fire be destroyed.
      He who shall evoke me in the eighteenth century, beware! For I cannot by fire or by water be destroyed.
      He who evokes me in the nineteenth century, beware! For I cannot by fire or by water or by force be destroyed.
      He who in the twentieth century shall dare evoke me, beware! For neither by fire nor water, nor force, nor anything by man created, can I be destroyed.
      He who in the twenty-first century evokes me, must be of God’s hand himself, because on this Earth, the person of man existeth no more.

  2. “The bad old days”?!?!

    Ok. the really old ones you describe here from when users weren’t even allowed to plug their own devices in to the phone lines… that was bad.

    In a way I kind of miss the more recent answering machines though. I thought people were crazy when they started paying monthly for voicemail when a one-time answering machine purchase could take care of that task for years. Have a message you want to save? You even get to keep the tape!

    Granted, this would be kind of harder to implement with a modern cellphone. I guess there could be an app that picks up after so many rings and takes the message… it would be dependent on battery and signal though.

    Really though… I think the whole telephone concept is an antique now anyway. Here’s how I want it.. i pay for two things; a big fat bandwidth pipe (fiberoptic probably) into my house and cellular internet access that I can use with my portable device. This would replace TV, telephone and radio*.

    Normal users would have a third bill, something to some sort of cloud based service that would act both as an email mailbox and a sort of VoIP ‘Operator’. Callers would use something more like an email address than a telephone number. This would connect their device to the ‘Operator’ server which would then route the call to the recipient’s home or portable device depending on the recipient’s current location/preferences.

    Voice Call, Email and Video Chatting… it might as well all be one service with one address. Let the person making the call or sending the message determine which they want to do.

    More tech savy users wouldn’t have that third bill. They would just run their own server on a computer somewhere at home using that big fat bandwidth pipe that I mentioned.

    1. * – for the “but cellular goes down in disasters” crowd.. we could keep a few broadcast radio frequencies for emergency service broadcasts. I would propose AM or even SSB for distance so that it would not be necessary to have emergency broadcast offices in every local area. Adding a receiver chip to all those devices shouldn’t be a big deal.

    2. Funny thing is, you nearly have that now, depending on where you are. If you have legacy copper leaving your home, it probably doesn’t go much farther than the end of the block or nearest junction box, where it connects to a cell interface, or possible fibre. In much of the US, the copper in your home goes as far as the outside wall, where the fibre interface is (or, for the unluckiest with Com***t, coax).

      From that point, it is VOIP, in one form or another. There are no analog or dedicated digital voice lines anymore in most of the world (thank you Dr. Rosenberg for SIP).

      1. You are missing the point. For the most part the only one benefiting from that VOIP is the provider. The users are still dialing telephone numbers, paying for minutes and at least in the case of international calls still paying for long distance.

        The closest thing I know of to what I was describing is Skype. That still isn’t there though because it’s always routed through Microsoft. I’m imagining Skype-like services but with an open protocol. You can run a free server yourself. Or you can subscribe to another. When calling out you call an address that is user@server, just like an email address. That means you can call people on other servers, not just your own or the one you subscribe to.

        There could be any number of fully compatible, intercommunicating competing client applications, server providers and server applications just like email is today.

        To the user this would mean:
        No more numbers.
        No more borders.

        And for those who self-host:
        no per-minute charges, you only pay for bandwidth
        at least on your side of the conversation.. no third party holds your inbox and voice/videomail

        Today’s phone system may be VOIP underneath the hood but it is still masquerading as POTS.

        Sure.. I know that most of the software to do this exists today. But… can we dump our phone numbers yet?

        Can you reasonably expect all the friends, family members and business you want to communicate with to be available this way today?
        Can I order a pizza?

        Are we even moving that direction? No, not really. Maybe in a couple of generations we will all be using something like Skype but that’s just a cloud service with a central server owned by some company that will have all the control.

        Ma Bell is dead, long live Ma Bell!

      2. Coax isn’t that bad. Ok, it’s slower than Fiber. We have two choices where I am, a local cable (coax) company and AT&T U-Verse. I tried U-Verse. I hated it. Honestly I never really noticed a speed difference. What I did notice was there shitty router that was built into the modem. Want to forward any ports? Yeah, it had an interface for it but it was buggier than Windows ME. I ended up putting a second router in between their modem and my network and just making my router a DMZ on the AT&T box. That was the only way to make port forwarding continue working past a reboot.

        Short version – I’ll take well implemented coax over whatever that was any day!

  3. I have a commerical version that is twice the size of the model showed here. The out going tape is an endless loop internal deck and Playtape cart for messages all metal design. It didn’t have the cradle for the handset. Lost!

  4. Honestly, I’ve been looking for an ‘Answering Machine’ for Android for a very long time. With telecoms and everything holding all the cards, I’d really like my voicemails to be under _my_ control, locally on the device that they’re answered from.

    I do not believe such an app exists currently due to the way Android security is implemented.

    1. Android’s security is often the reason something Android-related doesn’t exist. There’s so much you can’t do with your own devices without a lot of hassle.

      I hate it when security becomes security against legitimate users.

      1. As i tell iPhone users… it’s not that Android is good. It’s only that iOS is worse.

        We really need some better choices!

        I really don’t know how iOS and Google’s security compares when it comes to the permissions required to make an answering machine but in my shop we usually run into things we want to do that iOS disallows but Android does allow. The ability to side-load alone puts Android in a class way better than iOS.

        Honestly though, the telecoms are all evil d1cks. If anyone actually offered a phone OS that gives the user a decent level of freedom I doubt the telecoms would allow it on their networks anyway.

  5. As I remeber, it was Carterfone [see Carterfone in Wikipeda] that fought AT&T, and won, so that AT&T had to provide a module called a DAA [Direct Access Adapter], which made this type of kluge unnecessary.

  6. First we had answer machines, and we had to check for messages whenever we got back home. Then email came along and we had to check for new email messages as well as voice mail. Then mobile phones, which had their own different voice mail. Then text messages, so we had to check for those too. Then social media came along, so yet more places to check for messages. And we not only have to check for messages when we get home now, we have to do it while we’re out too!

    1. Our answering machine had a little beeper box that you would carry in your pocket. If you wanted to check your messages while you are out you could just call your home, let the machine pick up and play the beep into the receiver. Then it would rewind itself and play back all the messages.

      I’m not sure how secure that was though…

      Why do you still have to check messages when you get home? Do you still have a landline? How many of us still have those?

  7. As I recall, you had to pay for each phone set in the house even if they all were on one line; i.e. extension phones were billed extra every month. You also had to get the phones from the AT&T office or sometimes the AT&T guy would deliver it.

    If you put an unauthorized phone (or other device) on the line, the phone company could detect the voltage drop on your line and you were soon busted! They had guys in the field who periodically checked each line to try to find bootleg phones.

    Cable TV started out the same way by charging you for each TV set that was connected to the cable. Each extra set was another monthly charge.

    1. This is true. I believe all of this is what the “ringer equivalence” number on the bottom of more modern phones/answering machines as for.

      I remember running around the apartment with my parents disconnecting phones when the Bell van parked in front of the house.

      1. They would often measure the ringer current to count the phones, so bootleg phones would have the ringer disconnected. I have heard that, in later years, they would use a TDR on the line and look for extra reflections.

    1. No they were smaller. When I worked in radio we had “carts” for ads and it was the same kind of format. I think that was 4 track but not sure if it was the same as a Muntz 4 track tape. They were NAB carts if I recall and they came in different sizes. The answering machine looked like a small NAB to me. That actually would make a good retrotechtacular was how cassette displaced 8 track which had displaced 4 track.

      The thing I remember very clearly about the cart was it had a magnetic sense tape at the start that was shiny foil compared to the dull brown of the rest of the tape.

      1. Don’t forget Playtape, the singles-45 vinyl answer to the 4 and 8 track. Smaller than the rest endless loop type, two hits two tracks in mono. They got into answering machines.

      2. A little off the main topic, but more info about radio carts: I worked in radio in the ’80s, and rebuilt and rewound many carts, and repaired/cleaned/tuned the cart machines often. They were the same size as 8 track tapes, with the main mechanical difference being that the cart machine had pinch roller that would move up into the cart through a hole in the bottom, while 8 tracks had a built-in pinch roller on a spring. The cart machines would hold the tape much more firmly and would lock the tape into the deck while playing, and if I recall, the tape typically ran twice as fast as 8 tracks.

        The carts and decks I worked with (ITC equipment iirc) were actually 3 track – left, right, and cue. We didn’t use any special sensing tape. When you made a recording, a short cue tone would be recorded on the third track. Since the tapes were an endless loop, the machine would run until it found a cue tone then stop automatically. The operator simply had to push one button to play, then the machine would re-cue the tape upon completion so the tapes were always ready to run. As an option, you could record 3 different types of cue tones, with the 2nd and 3rd type used to trigger external outputs (i.e. use a tone to start a different cart deck), but we weren’t an automated station, so we used only the primary cue tone.
        We would record 1 song on 4 or 5 minute carts, and 3-5 separate promos or psa’s on 1 minute carts. The splicing tape that we used was usally pretty shiny compared to the duller brown tape, but it wasn’t any more or less magnetic than the rest of the audio tape.

        1. I couldn’t remember if an A cart was smaller or not. If an A cart was the same size as an 8 track then this wasn’t the same. But I thought the 4 track stuff needed an adapter to fit into an 8 track slot, so I still think a NAB cart might have been smaller. Been so long since I’ve seen one.

      3. We had carts at the radio station I worked at. They were full size. The differences were the number of tracks and how the tape was moved.

        These things in the article look like something else, something similar but smaller.

  8. For a while, an Answering Machine based on a magnetic drum was around my parents house. It came to us after having been taken out of service at my fathers employer. It wasn’t meant to be put into service with us, just for curiosity. Alas, for reasons similar to Al W. I didn’t make it to disassemble it, nor take pictures.

    The device was of a purely electromechanical design for the “storage” part (I can’t imagine zero semiconductors in the Audio part and for sure there were no valves).
    The drum with a magnetic surface coarting like audio tape or harddisk platters was about the with of my hand in diameter and mounted horizontally. The r/w head was positionable on a horizontal rail alongside the drum. Tracks were rings on the outside of the drum.
    The leftmost few rings/tracks were for the greeting messages: you could keep less than a handful prerecorded to choose from. The rest of the tracks toward the right were for the callers messages.
    I can only guess that the drum must have run very slowly such to make about 1 rpm so to allow 1 minute time for each of the messages.
    A lever with a knob coupled with the r/w head assembly protruded from a slit in the front of the case. Pressing the knob disengaged it from a toothed bar and you positioned it at the left on one of the greeting messages (“…our office hours are from … to ….”) and armed the machine.
    Incoming calls started the device, picked the call, played the greeting and then moved right for recording the callers brabble.
    The must have been a kind of mechanical marker to know how many of the tracks were already filled with callers recordings, so to pick the next free. I estimate there was capacity for maybe 20..40 incoming call recordings.

    At least this one was directly wired to the phone line and needed no external tape deck.
    Brand name and model ne. have been forgotten to protect the innocents. I just recall the case was two gray “shells” of possibly bakelite. It walked Its last mile to the dumpster before I could take my time to admire it more in dept. ETX.

    1. Could it have been a dictaphone belt and not a drum? I’d seen those in police department dispatches recording calls before.

      Look at the belt mechanism on this:

      That wasn’t a phone system, but they did make them. The only thing is once you recorded on it, it was recorded forever. You can’t erase a dictabelt.

      Or maybe this:

        1. Well, here my translation of the notes on said RaMu.org page:
          “””
          Alibicord is an answering machine for recording incoming phone calls.
          The messages get recorded on a big drum with a magnetic foil.
          The callees messages (greeting and goodbye) get recorded on a separate, smaller drum. It can hold two greeting messages. When the recording capacity for caller messages is filled up, the Alibicord switches to the second greeting message. Recording of the callees messages goes thru an external mike.
          Listening (monitoring) while the incoming calls get recorded is possible.
          Drive is provided by a shaded-pole motor.
          Sequencing of play and record is done using cam shafts
          “””

          Fun how fading memories positively enhance the list of features I meant the device should have had according to my first description… <:-)

        2. here one more OT side note, complementing “… but I was still fearful from having knocked over the old Zenith TV as part of an experiment.”

          A YL I know (by callsign/name/QSO AND met in person) told me her start into tech.

          When she was a kid her father bought a for that time unthinkable color TV for the family (it may have been the first color TV in that small village up in the alps). She was fascinated by the device and queried everybody within reach for an explanation how it worked with the colors.
          One of her elder brothers sold her a FUD story about RGB bottles of liquid ink, which somewhen eventually would have to be replenished.
          This story did not let her go, so she finally was determined to want see those bottles in first person.
          One afternoon after returning home from school, she pulled the familys household tools and started disassembling the still new and shiny color TV.
          As it had (pun intended) to turn out this led to two results:
          A big disappointment that her big brother lied on her about RGB bottles in the TV set and of course an utterly expensive color TV f…ddled to parts beyond repairability. (she did not get an HV discharge)
          She recalls her father shouting out loud and words she had never heard till that moment he discovered her “research work”, but she does not recall wether or how she got punished therefore (maybe she did not want to tell me, I haven’t asked further…).

          For the sake of gentlemensship I won’t disclose further personal data about the lady.

  9. My first job and foray into big money was with answering machines. I was a kid in high school and a friend knew a friend who knew a guy who had a company that leased the things out. It turned out his tech had left and he had shelves of them that needed fixing. He was reluctant to even give an unknown kid even a couple of bucks an hour but we settled on something I am sure he really wound up regretting, $10 for each one I fixed. These were the really old bests that had the outgoing message on a big mass of tape in a little acrylic box, not even an endless loop cassette. I came in the first Saturday for a couple of hours and fixed over 10 of them, just cleaning the contacts that sensed when the tape came all the way around. After I exhausted that common issue, I moved on to the next and the next. This was the early 70’s and I was pulling in some serious coin. About the time I was down to the last few, and they were pretty much canalized for the others, my family moved to another state. Future jobs would be interesting, but it took me a long before I was making what I made in my first job.

  10. Up to relatively recently tape-based machines were in use in the UK phone system, typically out-of-hours for doctors surgeries for some reason. I saw a lot of them in exchanges but never had to fiddle with one. They used standard C90 style cassettes though.

    Also, the whole cam-based control sequencing is actually pretty damn good even today – it’s simple, cheap, robust, easily modified / varied (need a different function? swap a cam. Need more channels? Add a cam & microswitch to the stack) and repairable by idiots using basic bits (microswitches are fairly universal).

    I’ve seen it used in washing machines, microwaves, etc. as well as large commercial / industrial gear. Again, in telephone exchanges there were cam-based ringtone generators driven by a DC motor which were literally running for decades with no maintenance. They had a series of cams to generate the on/off patterns to denote different things (like a message waiting).

    The motors were made by Parvalux who are still going.

  11. Something I just remembered and I could not get anybody interested in at the time was using pieces of an answering machine to make a gizmo that would answer talk to answering machines. Given about 90% of the time you just leave your name and number a couple of times I figured a gizmo that had a button on it you would press after you got the initial “beep” would let you offload that task. Today the telemarketers love it. Not a day goes by that I don’t have ad’s on my answering machine.

    Something interesting to ponder. Will kids in 20 years even remember a time when you just answered the phone? I know we don’t anymore. People we know are in our CID whitelist and get announced. Others go to voicemail.

    Another q too. Do you answer if the same number rings back to back twice? I may in that case. Funny that even the spammers have not touched an instance that may have hint of an “emergency” or what not associated with it.

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