The face behind voice mail


One hundred twenty-five years ago this month, Alexander Graham Bell made the world's first telephone call, summoning his assistant with the famous line: "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you!"

History doesn't record a response, but if Gordon Matthews had been around, the great inventor might have gotten this:

"Hi, this is Tom Watson, Mr. Bell's executive assistant. I've stepped away from my desk. Press 1 to leave a message, 2 to reach an attendant."

Matthews' name may not be familiar, but his most inspired invention is known to almost everyone: voice mail. Because Matthews created the first working system more than two decades ago, a generation of cubicle dwellers has him to thank, and occasionally curse, for its influence on their day.

"When I give a speech I like to joke, 'I know half of you love me and half of you hate me,'" the energetic 63-year-old inventor says via cell phone as he drives between meetings in Austin, Texas.

The father of voice mail is not an easy man to track down. It requires multiple messages on - what else? - one of his many voice mail boxes. He has voice mail at his Austin home, on his cell phone and at his office. "You know the drill," one greeting begins. And these days, most people do.

About 80 percent of large American corporations have voice mail, according to the TeleMessaging Industry Association. In many workplaces, it's as expected as a desk and phone.

As Matthews tells it, the idea for voice mail came to him one day in the early 1970s. He was visiting a Denver building supply company on business when he glimpsed a room full of trash bins brimming with message slips.

'I've got this crazy idea'

"I thought, 'This is really stupid,'" recalled Matthews, an Oklahoma native who received a degree in engineering physics from the University of Tulsa. After his initial inspiration, the concept for a device to store and retrieve messages "came very quickly." He later told his wife, "I've got this crazy idea."

He had already spent nearly a decade noodling with computer and telecommunications hardware, first at IBM and Texas Instruments, then at two of his own companies.

By 1979, he had a new company, ECS Telecommunications Inc., and a 49-page patent application on his prototype Voice Messaging System. He also had reason to hurry. IBM, his old employer, was rumored to be working on the voice mail problem. Although he didn't know it, there were others. But Matthews would beat everybody into the workplace.

When the prototype was finished, an engineer with a sense of both history and humor tested it. The first voice mail message: "Gordon, come here."

While the technology has improved drastically, the essence of Matthews' design remains the basis of how voice mail works today: Computer chips translate the sound of a person's voice into digital ones and zeroes, which are then archived onto magnetic disk.

"We were stretching the technology," Matthews said. The first voice mail system required 64 telephone lines, 114 Intel 8086 microprocessors and four refrigerator-sized 200-megabyte hard drives.

The only thing that remained was finding a company willing to buy the untested system. And a chance meeting with a Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing company executive solved that problem.

"Voice mail was one of the things where you say, 'This is going to be like popcorn, it's going to be everywhere,'" said James Jensen, a 59-year-old retired 3M executive who persuaded company higher-ups to try voice mail after hearing Matthews describe it at a conference.

The typical executive "spent a lot of time communicating nothing," Jensen recalled. "You went to a meeting for a couple of hours. When you got back your secretary would have five, 10, 15, 20 pink slips of people saying, 'Return my call.' Of course, half the people you call wouldn't be there and so you leave a pink slip on their end."

There was a new phrase for it: telephone tag.

In 1980, 3M became the first company to use voice mail. The system cost roughly $500,000 (about $1.1 million in today's money) and could handle up to 3,000 users. Within a year, other corporations were lining up for Matthews' invention, including Westinghouse, Arco, Corning Glass, and Intel.

Most 3M execs loved the new technology, Jensen said. It not only cut down on the avalanche of message slips but made it easier to pass along information after the business day was done.

"Of course, there was a downside," Jensen said. As voice mail spread, "the number of secretaries in the office started really going down." (That trend accelerated, he noted, once word processors became commonplace.)

There were other problems. Some customers, Jensen said, grumbled about talking to a machine. And as more companies began replacing front desk receptionists with automated attendants, the grumbling grew even louder.

In the early 1990s the popular press wrote about the frustration of "voice mail jail" - being trapped in a labyrinthine series of telephone prompts that never seemed to lead to a human.

It's a gripe that persists. This year an Indiana lawmaker even introduced a bill prohibiting civil servants from using voice mail if they have working telephones. (The bill did not pass.)

Corporate courtesy

And the technology has given rise to a cottage industry of etiquette consultants.

"Oh, there's horrible stories out there," said Nancy Friedman, a St. Louis consultant known as the Telephone Doctor who helps companies with their phone, voice mail, fax, and e-mail skills.

"People leave greetings like, 'Hi, this is Bob and I'm not here right now.'"

"Well," she clucked, "that's a lot of news!" One of her favorite phone faux pas: A women who left a voice mail message for a client and, not realizing she was still being recorded, began to trash the company to a colleague.

And don't even get Friedman started on automated attendants. A $395 corporate training video, "Escape from Voice Mail Jail," is one of her bestsellers. Some companies are trying to lighten the mood. National Discount Brokers, for example, includes this menu option on its automated attendant: "If you would like to hear a duck quack, press 7." (And they're not kidding.)

Today, voice mail has spread far beyond the office. Social workers in some areas give it to homeless people to help them plant roots and find a job. Schools use it to make it easier for teachers and parents to stay in touch. As more people tie up their phone lines with the Internet, voice mail is fast replacing the answering machine as a way to prevent callers from hearing a busy signal.

Last year, residential voice mail boxes increased 17 percent to nearly 16 million, according to industry figures.

Voice mail has been good to Matthews, who retired in 1989 and moved to a gated community in Austin to raise Dobermans and play golf.

But he's still tinkering. After a few years on the fairway, Matthews says he got antsy ("The Lord gave me a brain; I figure I might as well use it"). He now works as a consultant and speaker. His wife, meanwhile, runs her own voice mail service for small businesses. "We can't get away from it," he says.

He has at least 20 U.S. patents to his name. And he's fiddling with everything from a high-tech way to speed up a round of golf to car radios that play your favorite tunes on demand.

"I like to tell people, 'Yes, voice mail was a great invention. But just wait because I've got three or four more ideas.'"

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