People in today’s offices would simply have no way of dealing. Up until the mid-1990s, just few decades aho, 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. This model dates from about 1907.

I actually knew someone who had one of these. They didn’t use it anymore because you couldn’t get the cylinders. Still, but they really loved this cool piece of equipment. They couldn’t let go of it. The dictaphone was spring-driven, required no electricity, and according to them, had never broken down even once.

The dictaphone in the later 20th century

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.

The end of the dictaphone

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.

I actually saw a microcassette recorder in an office supply store not that long ago. I think that says more about the sad state of office supply stores than it does about the viability of dictaphone technology.

Dictation technology in the 21st century

Over the last two decades, we’ve seen massive improvements in computers. Computers actually are now capable of understanding human speech. Using large servers instead of local computers, every device including your phone can understand speech quite well. This means if you wanted to dictate a letter, you could. All of us have dictated a text message or two in haste. We know sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But, it’s getting better, and it certainly is better than using that old dictaphone.

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 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.