People in today’s offices would simply have no way of dealing. You millennials may not believe it, but up until the mid-1990s, just a moment in time ago, there were a lot of people in offices who didn’t type their own letters. Yeah, letters, you know, snail mail? This was a time before a computer on every desk and a smartphone in every hand so e-mail would have been a waste of time.

Here’s how letters were written: The boss, usually a man, would dictate a letter to a secretary, usually a woman. Some women used the Gregg Shorthand system to be able to write extremely quickly, this was known as “taking dictation.” The more tech-savvy bosses recorded their correspondence so the secretary could type at her own pace. The machine used for this purpose was generally referred to as a dictaphone.

Dictaphone originally referred to this monstrosity:

which was a gigantic piece of cast iron about the size of an office inkjet printer. It recorded the boss’s voice on cylinders made of beeswax (yes really.) The cylinders themselves were only usable once unless you were interested in melting and re-waxing them.

In later days, the word became a generic term for any recording device designed for office use, and eventually miniaturization took over, giving bosses the pocket-sized microcassette recorder:

which, despite truly horrible sound quality, was still miles ahead of the original dictaphones. Again though, a boss would talk into the recorder and give the recording to a second human being to type. Remember, a lot of men could not type in those days. That’s pretty sad by today’s standards.

You can thank Generation X for the end of the dictaphone. As those folks born in the late 1960s and early 1970s made their way in the workplace, their home computers had prepared them to use office equipment without the need of a second person. A generation of women came to think of themselves (rightfully) as being as capable as men, and in a perfect convergence of social and technological growth, the dictaphone died a quiet (albeit hissy) death.

Of course, if you still want to dictate, most phones let you do that, but there is the question of exactly who else would be typing it for you.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 5,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.