I came across this interesting story last night.
In early 1934, Clarence Hickman, a Bell Labs engineer, had a secret machine, about six feet tall, standing in his office. It was a device without equal in the world, decades ahead of its time. If you called and there was no answer on the phone line to which Hickman’s invention was connected, the machine would beep and a recording device would come on allowing the caller to leave a message.
Why was this so earthshaking a find?
The genius at the heart of Hickman’s secret proto–answering machine was not so much the concept- perceptive of social change as that was-but rather the technical principle that made it work and that would, eventually, transform the world: magnetic recording tape. Recall that before magnetic storage there was no way to store sound other than by pressing a record or making a piano roll. The new technology would not only usher in audio cassettes and videotapes, but when used with the silicon chip, make computer storage a reality. Indeed, from the 1980s onward, firms from Microsoft to Google, and by implication the whole world, would become utterly dependent on magnetic storage, otherwise known as the hard drive.
But what happened to this invention?
What’s interesting is that Hickman’s invention in the 1930s would not be ” discovered” until the 1990s. For soon after Hickman had demonstrated his invention, AT&T ordered the Labs to cease all research into magnetic storage, and Hickman’s research was suppressed and concealed for more than sixty years, coming to light only when the historian Mark Clark came across Hickman’s laboratory notebook in the Bell archives.
But why would company management bury such an important and commercially valuable discovery? What were they afraid of? The answer, rather surreal, is evident in the corporate memoranda, also unearthed by Clark, imposing the research ban. AT&T firmly believed that the answering machine, and its magnetic tapes, would lead the public to abandon the telephone.
It makes me wonder what else is out there, being suppressed by the idea of protecting the corporate creators, or possibly by political correctness?
How would our lives be different?
How would they be the same?
And how much further along would we be if this invention had been allowed to come to fruition? Would we be on other planets by now? How would our politics be different?
Would my husband actually be comfortable with email? Forget email, would he at least be able to turn on a computer?