Scanning Around With Gene: Funny, That Doesn’t Sound Like Me

I recently received a terrific gift I can’t say enough positive things about, not the least of which is that it gave me an excuse to use the images you see here today.

That gift is a fancy electronic device called the Pulse Pen from Live Scribe, which records audio while you take physical notes. If you write on one of their special notebooks (which have a very faint pattern of dots printed on the pages), then you can simply tap the pen anywhere in your written notes and hear the audio that was recorded at that time. It’s excellent for reporters, students, and anyone who wants to supplement written notes with an audio record. You can do a lot more with this pen, so I suggest checking it out.

The Pulse Pen is far from the first attempt to bring voice recording into the office — that started soon after Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell developed audio-recording techniques in the late 1880s. (They weren’t the first, but they did commercialize the technology in the United States.) The earliest examples I have are from the Dictaphone Company in 1937 and of the Edison Ediphone that same year. Click on any image for a larger view.

These large and bulky machines were for top executives to dictate their letters and other thoughts onto a wax cylinder, which would then be transcribed by efficient secretaries. The wax technology was used in office equipment through World War Two, when a membrane belt replaced the wax cylinders. This ad for the Memobelt machine is from the late 1940s.

In 1945 the Lear Radio Corporation came out with a way to record on thin wire, which they advertised more for home use than office. That technology was relatively short lived, though it did show up in quite a few products and was the first commercial method of so-called “magnetic” recording techniques.

The etched-belt method of recording remained the standard through the 1950s. These ads for the Dictabelt Time Master appeared in 1958 and 1959.

Of course, in all these ads the executive or businessman is, well, a man, and the poor transcribers are all women.

Audio recording tape was invented in the 1930s but didn’t become practical or widespread until the 1950s, and for smaller devices the 1960s. That’s when this ad for the all-transistor Edison V.P. Voicewriter appeared. I love the ashtray and lit cigarette, which were also office staples back then.

In 1962 Phillips introduced the audio-cassette format, and it became the standard in inexpensive audio recorders. It was (and still is in some forms) used in dictation equipment, though it’s rapidly being replaced by digital recording methods.

My favorite recording technology experiment is the one below, produced in the 1970s by Smith Corona, better known for its typewriters. Known as The Mail Call, this device used a thin recording “disc” which allowed people to send audio “letters” back and forth. Both parties needed a special player/recorder. So simple even Grandma could use it to send audio letters off to her soldier grandson.

And even though not officially a recording device, I had to include this ad from 1966 for the General Electric Show ‘N Tell, which combined a record player with a small screen so kids could play synchronized slide shows. I guess you could call it the first video iPod.

We’ve come a long way in recording technology. My new Pulse Pen is very small and can record up to 400 hours in Flash memory. It records in stereo and the quality is quite good. But I swear, no matter which type of technology I’ve used over the years, my voice still doesn’t sound anything like me!

Posted on: January 15, 2010

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

5 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: Funny, That Doesn’t Sound Like Me

  1. Ha! I live in fear the older I get and the more recent your examples of ‘antique’ technology become – that one day they will colide and I’ll actually remember using one of these relics! Like Rubylith, Electro-Stik waxers or burnishers, oh my!

  2. I must really be getting old, Gene… I actually remember the Show ‘n Tell unit being shown in the Sears Wish Books in the mid-70’s. I always thought how cool it would be to have one of those, but it never came to be. Hmmm…. Now I’m going to have to search around and see if anyone has one up on ebay.

    Love the articles, by the way. I enjoy getting the chance to look back at where we’ve been in comparison to where we’re going. Keep ’em coming!

  3. I would point out both the questionable value of the Show ‘N Tell in 1966 as well as the advances in technology. According to an online value calculator, the Show ‘N Tell in today’s dollars is about $190. Certainly, a record player was much less costly then. So, the extra cost was all about the content packages offered for the platform. And users could play other audio content available (in 4-speeds yet, 33, 45, 78 and 16.66 rpms, I guess).

    Today, you can buy a personal video/audio player like the iPod nano (I think the Touch is a different vehicle) for $180 that holds an entire day’s worth of viewing, lets users shoot their own video, and offers a built-in radio.

    david morgenstern

  4. My dad (a Court Reporter in Superior Court, L.A.) used Dictaphone cylinders at least through around 1955, and he used to have me lathe them for re-use, paying me a nickle each for my trouble. The lathe was far older than the Dictaphone unit shown, with its louvered steel case. I seem to remember the Dictaphone belts, but I believe there was a red disk system, too.

    For real office archaeologists, he also had a Bruning Copyflex–a real monster, and finicky.

    Thanks again, Gene!

  5. This device was similar in concept to the sound-slidefilm units used widely for sales and mechanic training by many major firms. It was a 35mm slide projector and a record player mounted together, and the very best ones were made by the DuKane Corporation of St. Charles, IL. The early presentations were called “gong operas” for the bell that was rung on the 16” recording to tell the operator to change the slide.

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