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The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame: PhoneMate 400

The PhoneMate 400 was the first commercial residential telephone answering machine. When it was introduced, in 1971, it unshackled people from their telephones, metaphorically speaking. That was a big deal because in those days, telephones were still literally tethered to walls.

The PhoneMate 400 also played a role in one of the most consequential legal battles in the history of electronics, according to the memoir of Mark Brooks, the company’s CEO at the time. In his book 85 Is the New 65, Brooks claims that if it weren’t for the PhoneMate, the development of the Internet as we know it would likely have been delayed by at least a few years.

In the mid-1960s, Brooks worked for a company called NovaTech, where he helped develop the idea for a residential answering machine. NovaTech got bought out by investors who weren’t interested in the consumer electronics market, however. As Brooks tells the story, the new management let him depart and take the idea with him.

He founded PhoneMate in 1968 and began work on the first residential answering machine. “Unlike the ultra-sophisticated solid-state electronics devices that came along later, the PhoneMate basic design was based on an old fashioned, primitive really, Japanese reel-to-reel tape recorder,” Brooks wrote in his memoir.

“The PhoneMate was built around a standard off-the-shelf box made of pressed sawdust covered with wood grain plastic,” he continued. “The size of the box was determined by the minimum amount of space necessary to contain two small reel-to-reel tape recorders and the necessary electronics to make it into a telephone answering machine.”

PhoneMate contracted with Asahi Corp., in Japan, to manufacture the device. The original machine, introduced in 1971 (or possibly 1970; Brooks is inconsistent), weighed about four and a half kilograms (10 pounds), could record 20 messages before having to be rewound, and sold for about US $300. At roughly the same time, the company introduced another model designated the 800—essentially the 400 “with some bells and whistles.” (These were followed by the 9000, “with the ability to call in from another phone, sound a beeper, and retrieve stored messages by remote control,” according to Brooks.)

Before there were answering machines, if you were anticipating a call that you didn’t want to miss, you had to stay close enough to your phone to hear it ring—and close enough to get to the phone within seven or eight rings. These are of course arbitrary numbers that somehow everyone had settled on as being the proper number of times to let a telephone ring before assuming the recipient of the call wasn’t going to answer. If you didn’t pick up in time, there was no way in those days to know who was calling. If you were out, you had no way of knowing if anyone had called at all.

The PhoneMate 400 changed all that. With the PhoneMate, people expecting a call no longer had to wait by their phones. The arc of the product’s rise and near-disappearance tells the story of how integral the basic function became to telephony. In the mid-1980s, millions of answering machines were sold each year; by the 1990s, tens of millions. By the early 2000s, the market for answering machines had started shrinking fast, but only because the function was shifted into the network, in the form of messaging services that eventually came free with nearly every telephony account. Even so, the machines have never quite disappeared entirely. In 2019, stand-alone machines could be bought for as little as $23, and some phones come with answering machines built in.

But it was the PhoneMate 400 that started the world down the path toward voicemail. Its additional significance is rooted in the iron grip that AT&T had on the entire telephone industry in the United States prior to being broken up in 1984.

Until 1968, AT&T, which built and controlled most of the telephone networks in the United States, would not allow anyone else to attach any electronic device directly to any of its wires anywhere. So hardly anybody tried to. An exception was Carterfone, an obscure company with an obscure device that bore the company’s name. The Carterfone allowed someone on a radio to connect to AT&T’s network and speak to someone using a telephone. The company petitioned the FCC to be allowed to attach its products to AT&T’s phone network. The FCC in 1968 issued an order that AT&T must permit anything electronic that didn’t harm the network to be attached to the network.

The so-called Carterfone decision was on the books, but for a while, anyway, it seemed to be irrelevant because the product soon failed commercially. Furthermore, AT&T subsequently made it difficult for every other company that wanted to attach a product to its network by arguing that those products harmed its network. There weren’t many such products; hardly anyone else had the resources to challenge one of the largest, richest, and most influential companies in corporate history.

The most notable exception was PhoneMate. With the PhoneMate 400, Brooks had an increasingly popular product and, perhaps even more important, he had an attitude. AT&T, he wrote, “forbade the connection of the PhoneMate to their system. I took the attitude ‘Take your prohibition and put it where the sun doesn’t shine,’ and we forged ahead.”

AT&T informed PhoneMate customers that they must also install a piece of safety equipment called an Authorized Protective Connecting Module (APCM),  according to Brooks. He said the APCM never existed—that the claim was essentially a bullying tactic meant to intimidate PhoneMate’s customers. It is possible the tactic suppressed some PhoneMate sales, but Brooks said that not one paying customer ever came to PhoneMate looking for an APCM—they just plugged their PhoneMates right in, just as his company recommended, thereby defying AT&T.

Brooks wrote that his company hired Hogan & Hartson (since merged into Hogan Lovells), sued AT&T, and won, with an argument based on the Carterfone decision and bolstered by technical evidence that the PhoneMate in no way harmed AT&T’s network.

Carterfone is universally cited as the landmark decision that cleared the way for modems—and therefore computers—to be attached to the phone network, thus paving the way for rise of the Internet more than 20 years later. Brooks’s view is that the rights established by the Carterfone decision were barely of academic interest until PhoneMate deliberately made them a practical issue and prevailed.

Many of Brooks’s broad claims are difficult to confirm now, but his story aligns well with that era’s timeline. The flood of products that could attach to AT&T’s networks—phones from other manufacturers, fax machines, modems, etcetera—did not happen immediately after the Carterfone decision but some years later, subsequent to the introduction of the first PhoneMate products.

PhoneMate dominated the answering machine market for a few years. The company is identified in a 1982 article in The New York Times as the largest supplier of answering machines. The paper quotes PhoneMate’s estimate that the entire market that year was worth $140 million. Forty percent of sales were of machines costing less than $140. In the intervening years, several other makers got into the business, solid-state electronics were adopted, and the tape format progressed from reel-to-reels to cassettes to microcassettes. (Today’s models are based on ICs, of course, and digital storage.)

Consumer electronics giants, such as Panasonic and Sony, followed PhoneMate into the answering-machine market. Competition and the dynamics of solid-state electronics drove prices down; answering machines became commodity products. PhoneMate was bought by its supplier, Asahi, in 1989. Then, in 1991, Casio acquired a 58 percent stake in Asahi. But even with Casio’s resources behind it, PhoneMate still couldn’t keep up with larger rivals. By the time The New York Times ran a follow-up in 1991, Panasonic and AT&T itself were the two biggest manufacturers by far in a market worth $900 million. PhoneMate was a distant third.

“Although we had won the battle to connect to the telecommunications network, we could not even begin to compete with the giants,” Brooks wrote.