What Is Dictaphone?

By Joseph Nicholson

Updated September 26, 2017

For more than a century, people have been able to record sound on external devices for later playback. In fact, what must have at one time seemed miraculous is now an ordinary part of life. The Dictaphone, the first mass-marketed voice recording machine for business applications has not remained static, but has evolved with technology over the last 100 years. Today it remains on the cutting edge of labor-saving and cost-cutting business technology.


The first sound-recording device, the phonograph, was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. Though advances in recording quality made music the phonograph’s most popular application, Edison believed his invention would be used primarily for recording speech in business contexts. The proliferation of reusable wax cylinders for recording made the recording of dictated business speech a common practice in the 1880s. The Columbia Graphophone Company trademarked the name “Dictaphone” in 1907 and soon became the leading producer of such devices.


The earliest Dictaphones were purely acoustical devices. An individual spoke into the flared end of a tube that carried the sound of his voice into a metal enclosure in which a wax belt was marked by a passing needle. Electronic microphones did not come into use until the 1930s. In the 1940s, the wax cylinder was replaced by a belt system and, eventually, by magnetic tape. Dictaphones today use digital recording technology to achieve playback of voice and audio.


One of the essential features of a Dictaphone is its ability to control and manipulate playback. Since the purpose of recording the dictation is to allow for later transcription, the ability of a stenographer to quickly advance, rewind and even slow down the playback allows for efficient transcription. Today digital transcription software uses voice-recognition technology to produce transcriptions electronically.


Because the term dictaphone has become a generic term for a recording and transcription device, trademark protection of the name has been lost. Dictaphone was spun off from Columbia Graphophone in 1923 as a separate company. It was acquired by Pitney Bowes in 1979, which sold in off to private investors in 1995 for $462 million. The company changed hands a few more times and as of 2009 was a division of Nuance Communications, which primarily constructs transcription platforms for a variety of business and medical applications.


The earliest dictaphones were cumbersome devices that were generally stationary. The digital revolution, which has produced pocket-sized devices of considerable processing ability and speed, has opened up a variety of applications never imagined with the original dictaphones. Since the development of magnetic tapes, handheld recording devices have been used in vehicles, at home and in hotels for recording. Voice recognition now allows those recordings to be converted into typed documents without the time and expense of hiring a transcriber, although voice recognition is not 100 percent accurate. In addition to the convenience of portability, the speed with which dictation can be converted and processed is a major factor in increasing productivity and efficiency in document-laden fields like medicine, law and customer service.