Opinion

I Still Feel Like Myself: The mortality of machines

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I Still Feel Like Myself: The mortality of machines

Amplicom, Ansaphone, Blattnerphone, Celebrity Answer All, Easa-Phone, Gravitavox, Palstar, Phone Butler, Phone Sitter, Phonetel, Record A Call, Record-O-Phone, Robosonic Secretry, Talk-Pal, Tel-Magnet, Vox 100.

The first answering machine was developed by Clarence Hickman in 1934 for Bell Laboratories. However, their parent company, AT&T, feared that this device would cause people to make fewer phone calls, being hesitant about having their voice recorded, so for some years they went no further with marketing it. (Similarly, many bandleaders resisted the appearance of records, fearing that people would stay home and listen rather than attending performances.) When they did see its value, it was aimed at businesses.

In 1971, PhoneMate, Inc. introduced an affordable and widely available TAD (Telephone Answering Device) designed for the home. It was their Model 400. It weighed 10 pounds and could hold 20 messages on a reel-to-reel tape. The unit included an earphone that allowed you to hear the messages played back.

Over the next couple decades PhoneMate made assorted changes and improvements, switching to cassettes, then micro-cassettes, then going digital. By the mid-80s they included a synthesized voice announcing messages, time, and day. By the early ‘90s some of their models included features like Optimum Channel Memory, Electronic PhoneBook (holding up to 100 numbers), and SecureCall, which would scramble the signal between the cordless handset and the base unit to prevent eavesdropping. In 1995 PhoneMate became Casio PhoneMate, Inc.

I have the PhoneMate model 4100. It is a two-cassette system machine, with one short tape (the original, bearing the company logo) for the outgoing message, and one for incoming, which can be any standard cassette. My friends Glenn and Nora found a pair of these machines at a yard sale in the late ‘90s and bought them for me, knowing that I was having trouble with my then-current unit.

Ever since I started using an answering machine, some time in the late eighties, I have favored this two-cassette type, no matter the manufacturer, because I save all of the incoming message tapes. I let both sides of the cassette (generally running 60 minutes) fill up, and label them with the start and end date of those particular recordings. I store them in index-card sized file drawers. The tape that’s currently in the machine is the 117th.

This answering machine is experiencing some frailties. For several years it has been unable to rewind and playback the incoming message tape. I found a way around this problem, and I refer to my solution as “My Portal to the 19th Century” (yes, I know there were not answering machines in the 1800s, but it’s funnier than saying the 20th century, conjuring thoughts of paddle-wheel powered mechanisms). The answering machine sits on my desk in the office on the second floor of the converted barn behind our house. When I see the LED display light blinking, an indication of how many incoming messages it has received, I remove the tape, go downstairs and out the door, walking across the yard to the house, enter and head to the TV and music room that’s at the front of the house. There’s a standard cassette deck in the stereo system. I turn the power on and insert the tape. I no longer need to turn on the amplifier because there’s been a problem with the volume knob that I have dealt with by having an old pair of headphones plugged directly into the cassette deck. I rewind the tape – this is a bit of guesswork that I’ve gotten better at with practice. If the PhoneMate indicated only one message, then it only needs a second or so of rewind. With the headphones on I listen. Quite often it’s an automated sales call for credit cards, mortgages, or septic tanks. I stop the tape after the message has concluded, return to my office, replace the cassette and reset the device so that it’s no longer telling me I have a message to retrieve.

Besides the declining state of my PhoneMate and stereo amplifier volume knob, the headphones are now also showing their age. The spongy pads that encircle each ear are losing their vinyl covering, which is coming off in little flakes. I recently learned that those little flakes end up being stuck to my ear, neck, and hair. I didn’t see them but Barbara did, and she asked me how I was getting charcoal bits on my head.

Other than the initial playback, I have never listened again to any of the tapes. They are documents of my various endeavors with friends, family, and professional associates (and those assorted sales calls). I know that this audio library has recordings of my father, who died in 1997, as well as the voices of other deceased family and friends. I’m sure I’d find mysteries and surprises. I know there’s a message from Robert Wyatt, and one Norman Lear in which he sang a song. There are no doubt messages I’m glad to have forgotten, and people I can’t remember. It might be that I never find a reason to play them back, simply taking comfort in knowing that they’re safely stored, as some sort of proof of existence.

Artist David Greenberger lives in Greenwich, NY www.davidgreenberger.com @davidbg

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