Dictaphone wax cylinder dictation machine
Dictaphone on display in a museum

Dictaphone was an American company founded by Alexander Graham Bell that produced dictation machines. It is now a division of Nuance Communications based in Burlington, Massachusetts.

Although the name "Dictaphone" is a trademark, it has become genericized as a means to refer to any dictation machine.


The Volta Laboratory was established by Alexander Graham Bell in Washington, D.C. in 1881. When the Laboratory's sound recording inventions were sufficiently developed with the assistance of Charles Sumner Tainter and others, Bell and his associates created the Volta Graphophone Company, which later merged with the American Graphophone Company, which itself later evolved into Columbia Records.[1]

The name "Dictaphone" was trademarked by the Columbia Graphophone Company in 1907, which soon became the leading manufacturer of such devices. This perpetuated the use of wax cylinders for voice recording, which had otherwise been eclipsed by disc-based technology. Dictaphone was spun off into a separate company in 1923 under the leadership of C. King Woodbridge.[2]

In 1947, having relied on wax-cylinder recording to the end of World War II, Dictaphone introduced their Dictabelt technology. This cut a mechanical groove into a Lexan plastic belt instead of a wax cylinder. The advantage of the Lexan belt was that recordings were permanent and admissible in court. Eventually IBM introduced a dictating machine using an erasable belt made of magnetic tape which enabled the user to correct dictation errors rather than marking errors on a paper tab. Dictaphone in turn added magnetic recording models while still selling the models recording on the Lexan belts. Machines based on magnetic tape recording were introduced in the late seventies, initially using the standard compact (or "C") cassette, but soon, in dictation machines, using mini-cassettes or microcassettes instead. The size of the cassette was important as it enabled the manufacturer to reduce the size of portable recorders.

In 1952 Walter D. Fuller became the director of the company.[3] In 1969 he was appointed as chairman.[4]

In Japan, JVC was licensed to produce machines designed and developed by Dictaphone. Dictaphone and JVC later developed the picocassette, released in 1985, which was even smaller than a microcassette but retained a good recording quality and duration.

Dictaphone also developed "endless loop" recording using magnetic tape, introduced in the mid-seventies as the "Thought Tank". As the recording medium did not need to be moved from where the dictation took place to the location such as a typing pool where the typists were located. This was normally operated via a dedicated in house telephone system enabling dictation to be made from a variety of locations within the hospital or other organizations with typing pools. One version calculated each typists' turnaround time and allocated the next piece of dictation accordingly.

Dictaphone was prominent in the provision of multi-channel recorders, used extensively in the emergency services to record emergency telephone calls (to numbers such as 911, 999, 112) and subsequent conversations. In the 1980s, these recorders also started to be used in the financial industry to record conversations in dealing rooms. The recordings were made on reel-to-reel tape and could be located and replayed by date and time. By the late 1980s, digital recording began to be offered as an alternative and soon became the medium of choice.

Additionally, Dictaphone at one point expanded their product line to market a line of electronic (desktop and portable) calculators.

In 1979, Dictaphone was purchased by Pitney Bowes and kept as a wholly owned but independent subsidiary.

Dictaphone bought Dual Display Word Processor, a competitor to Wang Laboratories, the industry leader.

In 1982 they marketed a word processor from Symantec. The hardware sold for $5,950 in 1982. The software was an additional $600.[5] The advent of the personal computer, MS-DOS, and general-purpose word-processing software saw the demise of the dedicated word-processor, and the division was closed.

In 1995, Pitney Bowes sold Dictaphone to the investment group Stonington Partners of Connecticut for a reported $462 million.[6] Dictaphone thereafter sold a range of products that included speech recognition and voicemail software.

In 2000, Dictaphone was acquired by the then-leading Belgian voice-recognition and translation company Lernout & Hauspie for nearly $1 billion. Lernout & Hauspie provided the voice-recognition technology for Dictaphone's enhanced voice recognition-based transcription system.[7] Soon after the purchase, however, the SEC raised questions about Lernout & Hauspie’s finances, focusing on the supposedly skyrocketing income reported from its East Asian endeavors. Subsequently, the company and all its subsidiaries, including Dictaphone, were forced into bankruptcy protection.[8]

In early 2002, Dictaphone emerged from bankruptcy as a privately held organization, with Rob Schwager as its chairman and CEO.[9][10] In 2004, it was split into three divisions:

In June 2005, Dictaphone sold its Communications Recording Solutions to NICE Systems for $38.5 million. This was considered a great bargain in the industry[11] and came after NICE was ordered to pay Dictaphone $10 million in settlements related to a patent infringement suit in late 2003.[12][13]

In September 2005, Dictaphone sold its IVS business outside the United States to a private Swiss group around its former VP Martin Niederberger, who formed Dictaphone IVS AG (later Calison AG) in Urdorf, Switzerland and developed "FRISBEE", the first hardware-independent dictation-management software system with integrated speech recognition and workflow management. In 2008, iSpeech AG took over the activities and products of the former Calison AG.

In February and March 2006, the remainder of Dictaphone was sold for $357 million to Nuance Communications (formerly ScanSoft), ending its short tenure as an independent company that had begun in 2002. This, in effect, closed a circle of events, as Dictaphone had been sold to Lernout & Hauspie prior to L&H's bankruptcy which resulted in Dictaphone becoming an independent company.[14]

In March 2007, Nuance acquired Focus Informatics and, with the intention of further expansion in its healthcare transcription business, linked it with its Dictaphone division.[15]


  1. Bruce, Robert V. Bell: Alexander Bell and the Conquest of Solitude. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-8014-9691-8.
  2. "Dictaphone". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-06-22.
  3. "Dictaphone Corporation Elects a New Director". New York Times. February 20, 1952. Retrieved 2015-08-04. The election of Walter D. Fuller as a director of the Dictaphone Corporation ...
  4. "Dictaphone Corporation Promotes Executive". New York Times. February 20, 1952. Retrieved 2015-08-04. The election of Donald D. Marsden to the newly-created post of vice president for finance and administration in the Dictaphone Corporation was announced yesterday by Walter W. Finke, president. Mr. Marsden also was made a board
  5. "Dictaphone". New York Times. October 12, 1982. Retrieved 2015-08-04. The Dictaphone Corporation, a unit of Pitney Bowes, has introduced a word processor that would give users the ability to retrieve electronically stored information by typing questions in English
  6. "Pitney Bowes Selling Dictaphone". Chicagotribune.com.
  7. "Dictaphone Corporation acquisition offers L&H resources to establish stronghold in health care solutions". Hoise.com.
  8. "Around-The-Globe: L&H Files Chapter 11". Forbes.com.
  9. "Dictaphone emerges from bankruptcy". News.cnet.com.
  10. "Dictaphone Announces Confirmation of Chapter 11 Plan of Reorganization; Expected to Emerge as Independent Company by End of Month.". thefreelibrary.com.
  11. "Dictaphone Selling Call Recording Business To Nice Systems". Blog.tmcnet.com.
  12. "NICE Systems and Dictaphone Corporation Settle Patent Litigation". Nice.com.
  13. "Settlement Agreement with Dictaphone". Wikiinvest.com.
  14. "Speech vendor Nuance buys Dictaphone". Infoworld.com.
  15. "Nuance Closes Acquisition of Focus Infomatics". Huliq.com.
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