Here’s something you might have missed, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune:
MILWAUKEE — Joseph J. Zimmermann Jr., who invented the telephone answering machine in 1948 and patented it a year later, has died at age 92.
Mr. Zimmermann, who died March 31, said in a 1949 interview with the Milwaukee Journal that he got the idea for the device as the owner of an air-conditioning and heating company when he could not afford to hire a secretary to take calls while he was out of the office.
The first machine, the Electronic Secretary Model R1, was made up of a box that lifted the telephone receiver from its cradle when the phone rang; a box containing a control panel with a 78-r.p.m. record player inside that played a recorded greeting; and a wire recorder on top of the second box for recording a series of 30-second messages.
Mr. Zimmermann teamed with businessman and fellow engineer George Danner to start Waukesha, Wis.-based Electronic Secretary Industries. More than 6,000 answering machines were in use in 1957 when the two sold the company, and the patent rights, to General Telephone Corp., which later became GTE.
“The only modern inventions that have been of any real use to me are the typewriter and the Pullman car,” H.L. Mencken told a reporter for Life in 1946. Kurt Andersen asked me the other day whether I thought Mencken would have taken to blogging. I think it’s possible (just), but I’m absolutely sure he would have bought an answering machine. I’ve used one for the past quarter-century, and I can’t imagine how I ever got through the day without it. I even bought my septuagenarian mother her first answering machine, and though it took her a year or so to get used to it, she now finds it indispensable. Can you think of a postwar invention with a higher ratio of social significance to cost?