Law and technology
Bell Labs and
In earLy 1935, a man named Clarence Hickman had a secret machine, about six feet tall, standing in his office. Hickman was an engineer at Bell Labs,
and his invention was, at the time, a device without equal on earth, way ahead
of its time. Here’s how it worked: in the
event you called and Hickman was out,
the machine would beep and a recording device would come on allowing the
caller to leave a message.
What was truly interesting about
Hickman’s answering machine was
not just the idea of a machine that answered calls, but rather, what was in its
guts. For inside Hickman’s machine
was something new to the world: magnetic recording tape. Recall that before magnetic storage there were few
low-cost means to store sound other
than by pressing a record or making a
piano roll. Over the long run, magnetic
recording technology would not just
herald audiocassettes and videotapes,
but when used with the silicon chip,
make computer storage a reality. Magnetic recording technology must be
counted, in fact, as one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.
For, from the 1980s onward, firms from
Microsoft to Google—and by implication all the world—would become utterly dependent on magnetic storage,
otherwise referred to as the hard disk.
Yet, there is something different
about this story—the answering machine would not appear in American
homes until the 1980s. What happened
in the meantime, as we shall see, sheds
light on central questions of innova-
tion in the 20th century that remain
central in the 21st century. The history
of the answering machine forces us to
confront the costs and benefits of mo-
nopoly in the information industries.
It is also a question of growing impor-
tance a technological age increasingly
dominated by large firms like Google,
Microsoft, and Facebook.
That Bell Labs played a major role in
inventing magnetic recording tape