Answering Machine

An answering machine is a device that allows incoming phone calls to be received and messages recorded when the phone user is unavailable. It may be a separate machine that is connected to a telephone or combined with a telephone to form an integrated telephone answering machine. Today’s answering machines may be either analog or digital. Analog answering machines use conventional audiotape recording, whereas digital answering machines use memory chips. The modern tape format is the continuous-loop microcassette, identical in size to the double-sided microcassettes used in dictating machines. Most machines take one cassette, which holds both the user’s message and incoming messages, but some machines take two cassettes so that the user has two prerecorded messages available. When analog answering machines first became available in the late 1940s, they were marketed as business machines. The use of the name “electronic secretary” conveyed their main selling point—as a secretarial substitute. In the 1980s, as answering machines became cheaper and more compact, they became standard items for the home as well as the office.

The Monopoly Issue

The legitimacy of AT&T’s monopoly was an issue that recurred periodically. In 1907, AT&T’s president, Theodore Vail, asserted that service efficiency dictated that telephone services should be controlled by a single provider, with government regulation supplying restraints in lieu of market forces. Many other countries accepted the notion of telephone services as a natural monopoly and created state-owned telephone utilities to prevent the potential abuses that might arise from private ownership. While state ownership did not accord with American free enterprise ideals, concerns about monopolies had resulted in the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which was intended to prevent monopolistic practices. In practice, the Sherman Act was applied only selectively, and AT&T built up its business in the early twentieth century with little opposition.

One acquisition that did attract government scrutiny was AT&T’s purchase of 30 percent of Western Union’s stock in 1909. Threatened with the possibility of antitrust action, AT&T sold off the stock only four years later. Meanwhile, the company was expanding internationally and had Western Electric manufacturing plants in Europe, the Far East, Australasia, and South America. For a short period during World War I, the government took over the running of a number of key industries, including telephone and rail services. In the postwar boom, the government was keen to stimulate the economy and remove restrictions. One consequence of this was the Graham Act, which exempted telephone services from antitrust law. With its national role thus strengthened, AT&T decided to divest itself of its foreign interests, except those in Canada. In 1925, AT&T sold the International Western Electric Company to the new International Telephone and Telegraph Company. Four years later, AT&T became the first American company to reach the $1 billion mark in annual revenues.

Improving Telephone Services

Despite the divestiture of most of its foreign interests, AT&T was active in improving services to its American customers by developing international telephone services. Bell System engineers had been experimenting with transatlantic voice transmission by radio since 1915. The research and development activities of AT&T were boosted in 1925 by the establishment of Bell Laboratories as the company’s dedicated research department. In 1927, AT&T launched a commercial telephone service between New York and London, using two-way radio. While international radiotelephone services expanded over the next ten years, capacity was limited and call quality was adversely affected by signal interference. These problems were removed only in the 1950s and 1960s when transoceanic telephone cables were installed. AT&T installed a transatlantic cable in 1956. Meanwhile, AT&T expanded the capacity for long-distance calls within the United States by adopting microwave technology. The first long-distance microwave telephone relay linked NewYork and Chicago in 1950. A year later, AT&T introduced direct long-distance dialing, which was available to 90 percent of American telephone subscribers by 1964. Another method of international and long-distance telephone transmission became available from 1962, when AT&T launched Telstar, the world’s first commercial communications satellite.

AT&T also played a pioneering role in the development of mobile telephony. AT&T engineers recognized early on that limited capacity was a major impediment to the expansion of mobile phone use. They proposed a cellular solution in 1947, thirty years before such systems actually came into being. AT&T revived this proposal in the early 1970s when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) invited proposals for a new mobile phone service to operate in an ultra–high frequency band around 800 MHz. The FCC’s decision was delayed by the instigation of antitrust proceedings against AT&T in 1974, but AT&T was granted a trial license in 1977 and began its first public trial, in Chicago, in 1978. Commercial licenses were awarded in 1982 when AT&T was in the process of being restructured.

Research and Innovation

From the 1920s, AT&T became renowned for invention and innovation, not just in the field of telephony, but also in the fields of sound recording and electronic engineering. In 1924, it pioneered commercial facsimile services by developing the technology for “telephotography,” the transmission of photographs by telephone line. Photographs were successfully sent from Chicago and Cleveland to New York. This system became widely used by the newspaper industry. The next step after the transmission of still images by phone was the transmission of moving images. In 1927, before television broadcasting existed, Bell System demonstrated long-distance television transmission by sending live images of Herbert Hoover, the secretary of commerce, from Washington, D.C., to New York. Bell System had introduced the concept of electrical sound recording in 1915, by demonstrating that the carbon microphone used as the telephone mouthpiece was equally suitable for capturing sound for phonographic reproduction. In 1931, engineers at Bell Laboratories developed an improved technique for “cutting” gramophone records, whereby the stylus vibrated up and down rather than from side to side. They went on to develop a method for stereophonic recording in 1933 that eventually became standard in the 1940s, although the first stereo experiments had been carried out in Britain two years earlier.

Perhaps the most significant single invention ever to emerge from Bell Laboratories was the transistor, which began the micro-electronics revolution. This stemmed from wartime research into the properties of semiconducting crystals, such as silicon and germanium, in relation to radar. In December 1947, three Bell research engineers—John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain—developed the n-type semiconductor diode. The three received the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics for their work on the transistor. Further research into silicon revealed that sunlight caused a release of energy from silicon that could be converted to electric current. The first solar cell, or battery, was created at Bell Laboratories in 1954. The physicist Arthur Leonard Schawlow joined the research team at Bell Laboratories in 1951. Schawlow developed existing ideas on the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), an optical version of the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). In 1961, the first continuous-beam laser was made at Bell Laboratories. It was the combination of the laser and optical fiber cables that enabled telephone service capacity to be increased in the 1980s.

AT&T became involved in research into computer operating systems and computer languages from its perspective as a user of computers for the control of switching systems and call routing. The nature of its computer use meant that it took an early interest in the development of systems that were interoperable and accommodated multiple users. In 1969, Bell Laboratories developed the UNIX operating system. In the early 1970s, the Bell researchers refined the language on which UNIX was based to create C, a high-level, general-purpose computer language. This made UNIX compatible with virtually any of the existing minicomputers. UNIX became widely used on networked computers. By the early 1980s, C was becoming restrictive for more demanding computer applications. In 1983, a Bell Laboratories researcher, Bjarne Stroustrup, added the principles of object-oriented programming to C to create C++, which has become one of the most widely used programming languages.

Bed Warmers

Climbing into a cold bed has never been a pleasant experience. The traditional method of dealing with this problem was the warming pan or the hot water bottle. Nineteenth-and early twentieth-century hot water bottles were made of either copper, stoneware, or (later) rubber.

The rise of electricity use in the 1920s prompted manufacturers to experiment with the humble hot water bottle. The Supreme Miracle was a 12-inch tubular element that screwed into an ordinary rubber hot water bottle and heated the water inside. This idea was developed by F. S. Spooner Wates, who also patented an electric bed heater encased in an asbestos tube. His patent was taken up by the British company Rothermel who produced an electric bed warmer with a brown Bakelite case in the shape of a rubber hot water bottle. The flex entered where the stopper would have been and the on/off switch was placed at the neck. Such products were probably best used to heat the bed before getting into it, as they were not grounded.

The first electric blanket appeared in the United Kingdom in 1927. This was the small Thermega heating pad, which had flexible electric heating elements within woolen fabric. Sunbeam was a major manufacturer in the United States. These were relatively expensive items, and electric blankets only became popular during the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to more reliable insulation, thermostatic controls, and developments in flame-proof materials. The British Burco Company, which began by making gas water heaters, started manufacturing electric blankets in the 1950s. It continues to produce them under the Cozee Cumfort brand. Most of these electric blankets were designed to go under the sheets and warm the bed before anyone slept in it, nevertheless the story of the electric blanket setting both bed and sleeper alight did enter popular folklore. The 1960s saw the introduction of electric over blankets designed to stay on all night. They could be washed in an electric washing machine, and the double models featured separate controls for each side of the bed, allowing sleeping partners to choose their own temperature. Although electric blankets are still in production, their popularity has declined due to the rise of central heating and warm duvets.


A bidet is a low, narrow basin intended for washing the anal and genital areas after using the water closet (toilet), although it may also be used as a footbath. The name is derived from the French word for a little pony, referring to the action of stepping astride it. Portable bidet pans were in use in France from the early eighteenth century. The Marquise de Pompadour, the mistress of the Louis XV, had two bidets, one with a rosewood surround and the other in walnut. Fixed pedestal bidets became available in the late nineteenth century when indoor plumbing and water closets became more widespread. For example, W. R. Maguire patented a combined water closet and bidet in 1888. After World War II, bidets began to lose their luxury status, but they are still uncommon outside France and other parts of continental Europe. Today, in addition to the basic type of bidet filled by hot and cold taps above the rim, there are bidets that feature an internal rising spray.

Black & Decker

The Black & Decker Company was founded in 1910 by S. Duncan Black and Alonzo G. Decker as a small machine shop in Baltimore, Maryland. They produced their first electric drill in 1915, followed by patented pistol grip and trigger switch. These innovations became standards within the electrical tool industry.

The company has developed over the post-1945 period to become a multinational corporation manufacturing power tools, domestic appliances, hardware, and building products. It has a number of subsidiaries making Emhart fastenings, DeWalt industrial tools, Kwikset home security, and Price Pfister plumbing products. Black & Decker acquired the electrical domestic appliances section of the U.S. General Electric Company in 1984. It is the world’s largest producer of power tools and residential security systems and the third largest faucet manufacturer in the United States. Black & Decker products are produced in fourteen countries and marketed in over a hundred. It has a large power tool plant at Spennymoor within the United Kingdom. It also produced tools for the NASA space program in the 1960s and 1970s.

The company has continued to innovate in product development and can claim to have introduced genuinely new tools and appliances. Most notable are the DustBuster vacuum cleaner of 1979. This small rechargeable cordless hand-held cleaner was a logical development of the older Hoover Dustette. It remains popular for cleaning up small areas and spilt crumbs. Another innovation is the Workmate designed by English engineer Ron Hickman in 1968. Black & Decker was not convinced that the Workmate would be successful and had initially refused it. However, Black & Decker introduced it in the United Kingdom in 1972 and in 1975 in the United States. The Mouse (1998) is a small hand-held sander and polishing tool that produces 11,000 orbits a minute. It comes with twenty-three accessories.

More recently the corporation has invested in more sustainable methods of production using recyclable coppers and irons in its motors and identifiable plastics for future recycling. In the United States, it has a national disposition center in Nashville, established to deal with damaged or worn-out products.

Belling Company

Charles R. Belling founded the Belling Company in 1912. Belling had previously worked at the British electrical companies of Crompton and Co. and Ediswan, where he had gained experience making electric heaters. He wanted to develop heaters further and set up in a small shed in Enfield, London, with £150. Two partners, C. L. Arnold and H. E. How, contributed £150 each.

Belling invented the “firebar,” a resistance wire wound around a fireclay former. Like gas radiants, the firebar could be raised almost to incandescence. The result was the Standard, an electric heater that went into production in the same year. It featured six horizontal radiants set in an enameled cast-iron body. It had a hook at the top from which a kettle could be suspended, a fold-down rack for keeping a pot warm and an attachment for toasting bread. Belling acted as a traveling salesman for the the Standard, which was an immediate success, and the company dropped the idea of producing other lines, such as an immersion heater and a kettle, in order to concentrate on its money earner. By 1914 £11,000 worth of heaters had been sold, delivering a profit of £3,500.

The company went into wartime production during 1914–1918 and emerged in a strong position to develop in the 1920s. Belling expanded their range with hotplates, immersion heaters, water urns, irons, steamers, grills, and the No. 7 boiler, a water boiler. They also introduced their first cooker (stove), the Modernette, one of the first lightweight models featuring a sheet steel body, in 1919. The firebar was improved with the Multi-Parabola firebar of 1921. This was a block of fireclay into which grooves comprising parabolic wells had been made. The heating element was formed in a continuous coil and laid in the grooves. This type of element was to be used in millions of electric heaters worldwide. Belling also introduced an imitation coal-fire model in 1921 in response to the market’s continuing love of an “open fire.” Although much derided as a piece of phony design, they proved popular for many years.

Other innovations followed with the introduction of a lightweight horizontal cooker with a waist level oven in 1926 and the compact Baby Belling in 1929. The Baby Belling was similar to the oven unit of the 1926 cooker but with a hotplate on the top. This model remained in production throughout the century. It was ideal for small flats and offices. During the 1930s the company continued to expand its range of heaters, including the Solray reflector heater of 1934, and to produce innovative cookers with glass oven doors.

During World War II, Belling moved to wartime work, producing its only nonelectrical item, an incendiary bomb snuffer. As if by fate, when peace came in 1945 it was Belling who manufactured the Vee cooker for the prefabricated houses designed to help alleviate the severe housing shortage caused by bomb damage. Following the war it produced the 47AB cooker, which was one of the most successful British models of the 1950s. The company expanded during the 1950s and 1960s as postwar consumption grew.

Belling was acquired by the Glen Dimplex group in 1992 and now concentrates on the manufacture of free-standing cookers.

From National Bell to AT&T

The National Bell Telephone Company was formed in Boston in 1877. Hubbard, Sanders, Bell, and Watson were the founding partners. The telegraph company, Western Union, also entered the telephone business, having acquired the rights to Gray’s patent and the U.S. rights to Thomas Alva Edison’s improved telephone mouthpiece. While a series of telephone patent disputes were not finally settled in Bell’s favor until 1893, Western Union decided to sign over its patent rights to National Bell in 1879, in return for a share of profits. National Bell was renamed the American Bell Telephone Company and gained a monopoly on telephone services until the expiry of Bell’s patents in 1894. In Britain, where Edison held the rights to his improved mouthpiece, American Bell and Edison joined forces to form the United Telephone Company.

Further restructuring followed as American Bell sought to optimize the management of its expanding business. In 1882, the Western Electric Manufacturing Company was set up in Boston to manufacture telephones for American Bell. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company was registered in New York as a subsidiary of American Bell in 1885. At first, AT&T was solely responsible for American Bell’s long-distance telephone services, complementing the Bell Telephone System’s control of local telephone services, but it assumed the role of the parent company in 1899. This move gave the company more flexibility in dealing with the renewed competition that followed the expiry of the original patents, as New York’s corporate laws were more permissive than those of Massachusetts were.

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1847. His father and grandfather were well established in the field of elocution and speech therapy, particularly in the teaching of deaf people. Even as a boy, he showed an interest in the family business by making a working model of the human speech organs out of a bellows, rubber, and cotton cloth. He studied at the universities of Edinburgh and London and became interested in scientific theories and inventions that offered new possibilities in terms of sound transmission. Bell was particularly interested in the acoustic experiments that the German scientist Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz conducted, using resonance spheres and tuning forks. In 1870, the Bell family emigrated to Canada, where they stayed for two years before moving to Boston, Massachusetts.

In Boston, Bell continued to teach deaf people and to investigate the potential for sound transmission by wire. He attracted financial backing from Gardiner Greene Hubbard and Thomas Sanders, the wealthy fathers of two of his deaf pupils. Hubbard’s daughter, Mabel, later became Bell’s wife. With the assistance of Thomas Watson, a skilled mechanic, he began to make prototypes of what would become the first telephone. In February 1876, Bell filed a patent application only hours before that of a rival inventor, Elisha Gray. A month later, he succeeded in transmitting speech from a transmitter to a receiver in a separate room. Although Bell became a partner in the National Bell Telephone Company, he took little part in the running of the company and set up laboratories in Nova Scotia, Canada, and Washington, D.C., where he could work on other inventions.

Brother Industries

The Japanese company Brother Industries manufactures a range of consumer products, including sewing and knitting machines, business machines, and home electrical appliances. Brother has thirty-three foreign subsidiaries, and 90 percent of its sales are outside Japan.

Brother Industries began as the Yasui Sewing Machine Company, which was set up in Japan in 1908 to repair sewing machines and produce parts. In 1928, the company produced its own sewing machine, an industrial model, and adopted Brother as a brand name. It began producing domestic sewing machines in 1932. Two years later, it was incorporated as the Nippon Sewing Machine Manufacturing Company. In the 1950s, the company began to expand both its product line and its markets. In 1954, it produced its first knitting machine and entered the domestic electric appliance field. To stimulate overseas sales, the Brother International Corporation was set up in the United States in 1954; a European sales subsidiary followed in 1958.

In 1961, the company diversified into the machine tool and business machine fields by producing a small lathe, intended for the school market, and its first portable typewriter. The company changed its name to Brother Industries Ltd. in 1962. In 1968, Brother acquired the leading British sewing machine company, Jones, which had been set up near Manchester in 1859. Jones and Brother had developed a mutually beneficial partnership shortly after the end of World War II. Brother reached the production landmark of 10 million sewing machines in 1971. This was also the year that the company introduced its first high-speed printer. Brother began to manufacture sewing machines in Taiwan in 1979. Fourteen years later, it set up a domestic sewing machine factory in China.

In the 1980s and 1990s, while Brother continued to be a highly successful manufacturer of sewing and knitting machines, business machines became the company’s major growth area. In 1980, Brother produced its 10-millionth typewriter and launched its first electronic typewriter. It began manufacturing electronic typewriters in Britain at a new factory inWrexham in 1985. In the following year, Brother Industries (USA), Inc., was set up in Bartlett, Tennessee, to manufacture electronic typewriters. Production at the Wrexham factory was diversified in 1987 with the start of microwave oven and printer manufacture.

Brother launched its first fax machine in 1987. Another new product line in the business machine sector, electronic labeling machines, followed in 1988. Growing demand for Brother’s products led, in 1989, to the construction of new factories to manufacture parts in Ireland and Malaysia. In the 1990s, the fax machine became the company’s fastest-selling product ever. In order to meet demand, Brother began to manufacture fax machines in Malaysia in 1994. It took six years for the production of fax machines to reach the 1 million mark in 1993; accelerating sales meant that total fax machine production reached 2 million in 1994, 5 million in 1996, and 10 million in 1999. Today, two-thirds of company revenue comes from business machines, such as fax machines and computer printers, while about a fifth of revenue comes from sewing machines, knitting machines, and home electric appliances.

Aga Cookers

The Aga cooker (or stove, in American usage) was invented by the blind Swedish physicist Gustav Dalen in 1924. Dalen was born in Stenstorp in 1869 and became a successful physicist. He initially made his name in lighthouse technology, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1912, the year in which he was blinded in an experiment involving gas cylinders. While convalescing he realized the problems that his wife encountered with a traditional cast-iron, coal-fired closed range. The food needed constant attention, and the stove used fuel inefficiently. He set about redesigning the range in his own kitchen. The result was a continuous-coalburning stove that was clean, efficient, and controllable. It was made of cast iron and insulated with kieselguhr, a heat-resistant padding used in the manufacture of explosives. It featured simmering and roasting ovens, two hot-plates, and a water-heating capacity. The oven temperature was controlled by a thermostat, which opened or closed an air damper.

Launched in 1929 and named after the manufacturing company Svenska Akyiebolaget Gasacumulator (Swedish Gas Accumulator), the Aga was successful because it filled the gap between outdated kitchen ranges and the increasingly efficient gas cookers. They were manufactured under license in Britain and became popular in country areas, especially those without a gas supply. Later models, designed to run on wood, oil, and gas, provided a constant source of warmth and hot water. Hand built and installed, Agas were always expensive and beyond the means of most households in urban and suburban areas.

The Aga changed little over the twentieth century and despite its Swedish origins is seen as an icon of English country living. (Some novels set in the country have been called “Aga-sagas,” and there is an Aga magazine for owners.) They have achieved cult status and are now popular in both town and country. Writing in 1985, Deyan Sudjic called the Aga “the earth goddess of suburbia, the last vestige of the hearth at the center of the home.” The original cream enamel finish has been augmented by a range of colors. They have become symbols of rustic domesticity and urban aspiration. This duality has ensured their popularity, despite the fact that modern gas and electric cookers are now more practical and efficient, and they are distributed worldwide.


Allgemeine Elektrizitats Gesellschaft was founded in Berlin by Emil Rathenau in 1883. AEG was originally known as DEG (the German Edison Company for Applied Electricity), as Rathenau had been impressed by Edison’s light bulb at Exposition Internationale d’Electricité in Paris in 1881.

AEG grew with the newly unified Germany and by 1900 it was one of the country’s major companies. By 1907 it had become the biggest manufacturer in the world of generators, cables, transformers, motors, light bulbs, and arc lamps. In that year it appointed an architect, Peter Behrens, as chief designer. He not only designed products such as kettles, fans, and telephones but also undertook factory buildings. Behrens was a pioneer of corporate identity, giving an elegant and uniform look to AEG posters, trade literature, and advertisements. He left the company in 1914.

Behrens was a member of the Deutsche Werkbund, a body devoted to the reconciliation of art, craft, industry, and trade. Germany’s adoption of this philosophy at the beginning of the century led to a greater commitment to research and design, resulting in products that were often superior to those of Britain and the United States. Behrens kettles illustrate this point. There were three basic forms, round, oval, and octagonal, set on a molded base. Through the use of standardized parts AEG was able to offer a range of thirty types.

AEG continued to produce a wide range of electrical products that have a restrained, elegant appearance. Since 1996 the operative parts of AEG have become independent companies utilizing the AEG trademark under license from its legal successor, EHG Elektro-holding GmbH, a DaimlerChrysler company.

British Electrical Development Association (BEDA)

The BEDA was set up in 1919 and funded by a coalition of four associations of engineers from the electrical supply and manufacturing industries. Its mission was to promote the use of electricity and its primary target was the householder. The domestic market offered the greatest potential and, critically, the anticipated daily pattern of domestic demand would complement the different industrial demand pattern, reducing unit generating costs and supply prices. However, electricity had to overcome its competitive disadvantage to gas in terms of the higher costs of installation, supply, and appliances. While electric utilities pursued a loss-leader strategy, by renting out appliances at below-cost rates, the BEDA’s role was as a propaganda machine.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the BEDA ran advertising campaigns extolling the labor-saving and life-changing potential of electricity. It constructed a vision of a Utopian future in which the all-electric home offered comfort (“healthy radiant heat”), efficiency (“freedom from domestic worry”), and hygiene (“protect your family from food danger”). Electricity was described as “a universal servant with an eternal willingness to work.” This astute strategy simultaneously played on women’s fears about their proficiency in the home and appealed to their aspirations to spend less time on housework. The BEDA was at least partly successful: there was an increase in households with electricity in the United Kingdom from 6 percent in 1919 to 65 percent in 1939. However, many houses only used electricity for lighting, and ownership of electrical appliances was very restricted.

The BEDA’s role began to change during World War II when it had to reverse its message and encourage people to save electricity. It resumed its championship of the domestic appliance in the 1950s with campaigns such as the “Four Foundations of Modern Living” (cookers, water heaters, refrigerators, and washing machines). Success was more achievable against a background of rent– purchase schemes and growth in disposable income. In 1957, the Electricity Council was set up as the central coordinating body for the supply industry; in 1968, it absorbed the BEDA as its marketing department.