AT&T Sabotaged Amazing Tech (That They Invented) To Protect Their Industry
In 1934, a researcher at AT&T created a new invention. Engineer Clarence Hickman connected a telephone line to a giant device, something like the new steel “tape recorders” they were working on in Germany. Without any manual intervention, the device could accept a call that came through on the line. And it would record onto magnetic tape all incoming audio.
Today, you’d call that invention an answering machine—if you’d call it anything; voicemail has largely replaced answering machines. But while Hickman’s device did serve the very useful function of recording incoming messages that someone misses, he’d also put together something broader. He’d made a way to permanently record phone audio transmissions, something that had previously been impossible.
That scared AT&T. An answering machine was obviously useful, particularly in that era before so many other forms of communication we have nowadays. But if you could record a missed call, someone else might be able to record any call. That meant anyone, during any conversation, should fear that their words were being permanently saved and could later be used against them.
If they unveiled this invention, figured AT&T, some people would buy it, but more people might stop using the phone altogether. Consider all intimate conversations, or confidential business conversation, or just any kind of casual talk that you can engage in when you can speak without consequence. All of that would end.
So AT&T shut down Clarence Hickman’s project. It sounds unreasonable now—we know that answering machines eventually did become popular and did not end telephones—but you’ll hear similar concerns today about communication over the web. Regularly, we’ll get new apps or social networks that promise (falsely) to liberate users by making all messages temporary. And many people are (wrongly) convinced that users talk much more openly on Discord than on forums.
A whole generation passed between when Hickman invented the answering machine and when AT&T sold it, by which time other companies had independently invented the device and were selling it on their own. Answering machines would only really get popular another generation after that, after AT&T’s monopoly fell apart and all kinds of phone innovation sprang up in its place.
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