Top 25 things vanishing from America: #14 -- The answering machine

This series explores aspects of America that may soon be just a memory -- some to be missed, some gladly left behind. From the least impactful to the most, here are 25 bits of vanishing America.

The idea of having a machine answer you calls and take a message is not going to go away, but the kind of answering machine we're used to? The stand alone model where you press the button and listen to a message on a tape? Oh, yeah, so long, and don't forget to write -- er, call.

The answering machine has evolved over the years ever since the first rudimentary gadget was invented in 1898, though it wasn't ever anything that went on the market. Ever since then, people have been trying to improve upon it. Answering services, where human operators were paid to answer the phone and take messages, were the rage, for years, and then answering machines started to dominate the landscape. When? It's hard to say, in a way. It's a machine that evolved over the years with many mothers for this invention, as this site demonstrates, but according to my newspaper archive research, the Mohawk Business Machines made a lot of news in 1951 with the one that they released to the public.

By 1974, the answering machine was ubiquitous enough that it was featured at the beginning of every episode of the detective series, The Rockford Files.

(If you click here, you can find a great web site about the Rockford Files, which features all of the messages left at the beginning of show. Each message was different, sort of in the way that each message on the chalkboard at the beginning of a Simpsons cartoon is different. Yes, I watch way too much TV. A sample answering machine from the Rockford Files: "Jim, it's Norma at the market. It bounced. You want us to tear it up, send it back, or put it with the others? BEEEEEP." And another one: "Sorry, old buddy, but there have been gunshots around your place once too often. The neighborhood association wants to have a talk with you. BEEEEEP.")

Today, there are so many devices to choose from that the standard answering machine simply can't compete. Digital answering machines are often embedded in the telephones themselves. There's voice mail, of course. You can have your computer answer your phone calls. But most of all, the cell phone, with its built in voice mail and/or answering machine, is turning the stand-alone answering machine into a relic.

Well, let's put it this way. According to USA Today, the number of homes that only use cell phones jumped 159% between 2004 and 2007. It has been particularly bad in New York; since 2000, landline usage has dropped 55%. It's logical that as cell phones rise, many of them replacing traditional landlines, that there will be fewer answering machines.

As if it isn't bad enough for the answering machine, they've even become an anti-environment issue. Yep, even conservationists are sniffing at the poor answering machine, noting that when an answering machine breaks, it goes into the junk pile. Voice mail solves that problem, and it saves electricity, too. That's when I feel sorry for answering machine lovers. I mean, the machines are bad for the Earth? How can you fight that?

So when can we expect the last answering machine to disappear from the planet? That is something I can't (sorry) answer. I'm (almost) tempted to tell people saddened by the thought of these machines to call me at my home office and leave a message at the beep -- on my voice mail, of course.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America(Rodale).

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