Did a decision by AT&T to suppress an early version of a telephone answering machine in 1934 delay the onset of the information technology revolution by sixty years? If one believes a recent story in Gizmodo, that may well have been the case.
According to Gizmodo:
“In early 1934, Clarence Hickman, a Bell Labs engineer, had a secret machine, about six feet tall, standing in his office. It was a device without equal in the world, decades ahead of its time. If you called and there was no answer on the phone line to which Hickman’s invention was connected, the machine would beep and a recording device would come on allowing the caller to leave a message.
“The genius at the heart of Hickman’s secret proto- answering machine was not so much the concept- perceptive of social change as that was-but rather the technical principle that made it work and that would, eventually, transform the world: magnetic recording tape. Recall that before magnetic storage there was no way to store sound other than by pressing a record or making a piano roll. The new technology would not only usher in audio cassettes and videotapes, but when used with the silicon chip, make computer storage a reality. Indeed, from the 1980s onward, firms from Microsoft to Google, and by implication the whole world, would become utterly dependent on magnetic storage, otherwise known as the hard drive.”
Around the same time, the development of magnetic storage medium was being conducted in Germany. The Nazi regime, however, classified the technology and it did not become readily available for world-wide commercial use until after World War II.
So why did magnetic storage technology not become readily available in the 1930s as a result of Hickmam’s invention. It seemed that the management of AT&T, then a government protected monopoly, regarded Hickman’s invention as a threat to their bottom line, telephone communications.
It seems that the powers that were at AT&T believed that if phone conversations could be recorded, use of the telephone would decline as people would become reticent about saying things over the phone that they would not want others to find out about. So all work on Hickman’s invention was stopped and the existence of the technology suppressed.
The Gizmodo article suggests that magnetic recording tape was not the only technology that AT&T suppressed or failed to market when it was a protected monopoly.
“The recording machine is only one example of a technology that AT&T, out of such fears, would for years suppress or fail to market: fiber optics, mobile telephones, digital subscriber lines (DSL), facsimile machines, speakerphones – the list goes on and on. These technologies, ranging from novel to revolutionary, were simply too daring for Bell’s comfort. Without a reliable sense of how they might affect the Bell system, AT&T and its heirs would deploy each with painfully slow caution, if at all.”
What if AT&T had been more forthcoming in marketing the technological innovations that Bell Labs had developed over the years? It could be that the information revolution might have started in the 1930s and 1940s rather than the 1980s and 1990s, spurring economic growth in ways that are difficult to imagine. The effects of earlier technological development on world history would have been incalculable.
On the other hand, AT&T was just behaving as any monopoly would, protecting what it had and resisting any change that might threaten the status quo. And, of course, the 1930s, with the Great Depression grinding along and the dead hand of the New Deal suppressing business growth, was hardly a friendly era for unregulated and unpredictable technological innovation. How Franklin Roosevelt’s brain trust would have reacted to the sudden onset of technology that they couldn’t understand or control can only be imagined.
It is no accident that the information revolution really took off in the 1980s, with the final breakup of the AT&T monopoly, the free market policies of Ronald Reagan, and the rise of upstart companies like Apple and Microsoft.
Source: How Ma Bell Shelved the Future for 60 Years, Tim Wu, Gizmodo, November 25th, 2010