Lionel Walsh • My Life and Times

Diabolus ex Machina

A malevolent machine: the Ipsophone

 By Stephen Somerville


< Chapter 9 | Chapter 11 >

Reuters always had a reputation for using the latest technology. “Follow the cable!” was the watchword of the founding Baron. He had used carrier pigeons as his first small-scale communications system, in the mid 19th century, but he quickly upgraded to the new telegraph network to launch his global news agency. Successive generations exploited the most effective messaging systems available, every invention from radio telegraphy to space satellites, from morse code to telex. By the 1960s, computers were about to take over the world and Reuters was one of the most active pioneers.

There was one anomaly in all this super-efficient technology: the Ipsophone, an eccentric telephone answering machine installed in Reuters Geneva office. When I first encountered it there in the early 1960s, I was impressed. I thought it was a cutting edge system, a brilliant new Swiss invention. I began to have my doubts as it became increasingly erratic and disruptive. Later I discovered that it had actually been developed during the Second World War, so the technology was already about 20 years old, soon to be swept away by transistors and computer chips. That would explain a great deal. The Ipsophone evidently felt stressed and under threat. It had been a longstanding member of the Reuters Geneva family, but now it was approaching the end of its life. It was like one of those grumpy old relatives, sitting in a corner complaining about all the changes in the world, forever embarrassing the family by misbehaving at the worst possible moment.

Physically the Ipsophone consisted of two components: a chunky telephone handset, with a dial and an array of coloured buttons, and a big ugly metal box. The sealed box looked like a large safe. It took up a lot of space in Reuters’ small attic office in Geneva’s Old Town. It was an electro-mechanical device, judging by the strange whirring and clicking noises that came from deep inside. It sounded as though it was full of cogwheels and pistons. In fact, I found out recently, it was packed with valves and magnetic wire reels. Even when it worked properly it was an odd system. When it went mad, as happened increasingly often, it was an evil spirit.






A chunky telephone handset, with a dial and an array of coloured buttons....

The purpose of the Ipsophone was quite simple, the same as all later telephone answering devices: to record messages and play them back, either in the office, or remotely. If you did not answer the phone after a short number of rings, it would tell the caller: “Voici l’Ipsophone de l’agence Reuter. Votre communication sera enregistrée. Veuillez parler maintenant.” (“This is the Ipsophone of Reuters News Agency. Your message will be recorded. Please speak now.”) A perfectly reasonable message, but delivered in the deep and rather menacing tones of a female robot. If the caller left a message, you could listen to it when you came back to the office. That was usually straightforward. The eccentricity began when you wanted to check your messages from elsewhere. The instructions said you could retrieve messages by shouting “Hello! Hello!” into the telephone. That was the first problem. Reuters’ Ipsophone, an insolent creature, had always refused to respond to this polite form of address, even though successive correspondents had tried different accents, English, French, German and so on. The alternative method was to blow sharply into the receiver. This is not as simple as it sounds. It went like this. You called the office, waited for the voice to welcome you and then puffed sharply into the telephone mouthpiece, twice: puff! puff! Assuming the Ipsophone deigned to hear you, the voice would start counting: “Un, deux, trois...” Using a pre-set code, you then had to blow again, after two different numbers. That meant two more pairs of puffs: “...quatre, cinq [puff! puff!],sept, huit [puff! puff!], neuf, dix...” If you got it right, and the Ipsophone was in a good mood, it would play back any messages. That was the theory.

The first difficulty, even when the Ipsophone was behaving, was blowing inanely into a public telephone without attracting the wrong kind of attention. Unfortunately the Ipsophone system did not seem to be well known. Someone puffing repeatedly into a phone – six double puffs altogether – had a way of bringing nearby conversations to a halt. Heads would turn, people would look at you strangely, wondering whether you were deranged or dangerous. You could only shrug apologetically, pretend you were normal and carry on puffing.

...and a big ugly metal box, like a large safe. I found out recently it was packed with valves and magnetic wire reels

We had no choice. Being in the news agency business, we had to keep checking our office phone for messages. There were no mobile phones in those days, of course, so everyone had to use public telephones. There was nowhere to hide. Usually it was an open phone in a bar or restaurant, surrounded by curious customers. Alternatively you might find a telephone cubicle down in the basement, but it was inevitably next to the loo, so you attracted equally odd looks from the passers-by. Talk about heavy breathing. It was always embarrassing, but it got worse when the Ipsophone pretended not to hear you, as happened more and more often. Then you had to ring back, blow even more loudly, wait for the voice to start counting again and carry on with the serial puffing.

That was how the Ipsophone misbehaved in public. Back in the office it had other ways of embarrassing you. Sometimes it would let you answer a call and then cut in, its deep voice sounding like an emergency announcement: “Voici l’Ipsophone de l’Agence Reuter...” At other times, when you were deep in an important conversation, it would suddenly start counting: “Un, deux, trois...” The voice was so loud and deep and robotic, that you had no chance of explaining to the caller what was happening. The only way to stop the Ipsophone was to yank the electric plug out of the wall socket. Not too difficult if you were sitting in the office. But the Ipsophone chose its moments to misbehave. It was much more awkward if you were phoning from the telephone extension in the little flat next door to the office, where I lived, as junior correspondent. Then you had to rush out of your front door, onto the landing and into the office – and hope that your bemused caller was still on the line. This sometimes happened, of course, out of office hours, when I was in my pyjamas, or less. At least the caller couldn’t see me, and I never encountered any neighbours. But I became convinced, as it happened more frequently, that the Ipsophone could see me, that it knew what I was doing and was waiting, ready to pounce at the most embarrassing moment.

My mounting paranoia seemed justified when the Ipsophone found an even more ingenious way to embarrass me. This involved another special feature of the machine: you could press a button and record a telephone conversation as you were having it, so that you could play it back later. A particularly useful feature for reporters. One morning the bureau chief, Lionel, called me over to his desk. “A quiet word, Steve,” he said. “A piece of advice: I don’t mind you using the office telephone for personal calls, out of hours, from your flat. But never forget that the Ipsophone is listening...” I looked puzzled. “I suggest you check the recording from last night. I only heard the beginning, but you may wish to delete it, immediately.” Lionel was not the kind of boss who liked reprimanding his staff, and indeed he seemed more amused than angry, but this was clearly a serious warning. I understood how serious as soon as I called up the Ipsophone. The machine worked perfectly this time, of course, and it began playing back a long, personal conversation that I had had the previous evening with the young lady who later became my wife. I had not, of course, pressed the record button. The Ipsophone had done so itself. It was taking over my life.

I decided to call the Ipsophone company to report a breakdown (my own, perhaps). I found the number of an office in Zürich and called, ready to complain, in German, even in Swiss German. The answer did indeed come in German, but it was not at all what I wanted to hear. To my horror, my call was answered by... another Ipsophone. “Hier ist das Ipsophon vom Ipsophon-Vertriebs AG in Zürich...” This time it was a male robot’s voice, just as deep and menacing as our own female francophone Ipsophone. I tried again, at different times, but I never found a human being. I gave up, defeated.

I began to dream about the Ipsophone. I dreaded telephoning from the Old Town office, in case it cut in on a conversation, or recorded me unawares. I was only saved from the curse of the Ipsophone by a sudden, unexpected order from Reuters headquarters: a new posting, move immediately to West Africa. I was sorry to be leaving Geneva for many reasons, but I was happy to take up a new challenge. And to escape from the clutches of the malevolent machine.

Let me end, however, on a positive note. There was at least one man who managed to tame his Ipsophone. He was Ernest Ashwick, the Geneva correspondent of the Daily Express. He taught his machine to respond not to puffing but to the shouted command: “White wine!” (in English, with a strong London accent). This was his favourite tipple, and it was a cry that was not out of place in the bars that he frequented. The Ipsophone gave him his messages – and the barman filled his glass. A perfect system. Ernest was a man I admired greatly. A true Hero in the war of Man against Machine.


Fact File

Origins of the Ipsophone

From recent research on the Web, I have discovered that the Ipsophone was in fact no longer cutting edge in the early 1960s. It was invented during the Second World War by a Swiss company, the Oerlikon machine tool works, better known for producing anti-aircraft guns and 20-mm cannon mounted on the wings of warplanes. You couldn’t make it up.

After the war, the Ipsophone was advertised as the first fully automatic ‘telephonograph’, a new kind of magnetic recording device. It was hailed enthusiastically in the media.

In 1946 LIFE magazine called it a miraculous gadget, ‘The Little Wonder of the Telephone World’. 

TIME magazine featured the invention under the title: “Science: Let It Ring!” It said: “To telephone slaves, a Swiss robot now promises freedom. Its name: Ipsophone. This amazing, almost human instrument automatically answers phone calls, gives and takes messages, rebuffs unwanted callers with a busy signal, records long conversations, and faithfully plays back everything it has heard whenever its master chooses to listen.”

Almost human? Its master??

 ©2010 Stephen Somerville


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