October 29, 2022 | Last updated Aug 10, 2023

A Question of Business: Will Machines Replace Stenographers?

In 1877 Thomas A. Edison invented a machine that could record and reproduce the human voice using a tinfoil-covered cylinder. Edison’s phonograph, his trade name for his device, was followed in 1886 by Alexander Graham Bell’s graphophone that used wax cylinders. The possible use of such devices as business machines, and the effect this might have on stenographers, was widely debated during the latter 1880s and 1890s.

 

This advertisement for the graphophone appeared in the Kearney Daily Hub on September 26, 1898.

The Omaha Daily Bee on February 23, 1890, discussed “The New Talking Machine” and asked, “Will It Force the Stenographer to the Wall?” Promoters of the machines believed that such a result was inevitable, but “knights of the shorthand” believed otherwise. The Bee said: “In view of the great interest which this subject has excited among the short hand writers and the public in general, a number of opinions were obtained from parties interested in the matter bearing upon both sides of the question.”

Stenographer C. A. Potter wasn’t alarmed over the prospect of being replaced by a machine. “It may interfere with our work in a measure in time,” he said, “but it will never knock us out.” T. P. Wilson added: “Even if the instrument was absolutely perfect in taking a conversation and reproducing it, it could not equal an expert stenographer.” Promoters of the new machine had a different opinion. Why talk to a stenographer, one asked, when you could talk to a machine “as fast as you please, with the absolute certainty of your every word being recorded. . . . It never wants an hour for luncheon, never has the grippe, never gets tired, never sleeps, but is always ready to serve you.”

 

This photograph of a Lincoln family in 1949 indicates that the phonograph ultimately proved more valuable as a source of entertainment than as an asset in the business world. NSHS RG2183.PH001949-001113-2 (above).

Other hoped-for uses of “talking machines” in the legal and medical fields went unrealized. Neither graphophones nor phonographs sold well for office use in the late 1880s and early 1890s. A cylinder held only a few minutes of recording, and the machines were expensive. Stenographers managed to hang onto their jobs for decades until modern business technology made shorthand obsolete.

– Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor/Publications

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