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Voice Mail

March 12, 2002

A public radio commentary

Today there is perhaps nothing more annoying that dialing the phone and hearing this:

SOT: {PHONE.WAV} "For help at any time press star h. Please enter extension and pound sign."

That's the voice of Jean Barbe, queen of the voice mail menu. Although voice mail is annoying, that wasn't the intent of its prolific inventor, engineer Gordon Matthews, author of some thirty patents. He said, "We didn't design this technology to annoy people, but rather to make their lives easier." In fact, he claimed that every one of his inventions came about because, to quote him "something bothered me." In the case of voice mail, it was a dumpster full of paper slips.

In the late 1970s Matthews owned a small telecommunications company. One day while waiting for a client he tried to call his home office, but because it was in a different time zone there was no one in. While waiting he noticed a dumpster full of those "While You Were Out" slips. Fusing these two observations - the inability to reach his office and the discarded slips - it struck him that there must be a better and more private way for a business to communicate internally. Then and there, he claimed, the idea for voice mail was born.

Now at the time there were answering machines that used cassette tapes, but Matthews had something much grander in mind. He wanted to store thousands of calls in a computer, which could then route them all over the company. Matthews recalls, "we were stretching technology" to make the system work. The Personal computer, so ubiquitous today, was just appearing and computing power was still an expensive thing. He built his first voice mail system from 64 telephones, 114 computer processors, and four refrigerator-sized drives to store the voice messages.

Today, of course, it's a crucial tool for all corporations. By 1989 he sold his company for millions and retired, spending a great deal of time on the golf course.

His retirement gave him time to reflect on his invention. could have used his creative talents to improve voice mail, but apparently he was bothered more by slow golfers.

Among his last patents was a golf cart system to prevent slow golfers from plugging up a course. He called it the Automatic Marshal. If golfers took too long at a hole, a monitoring system automatically alerted the golf course marshall via pager.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises