A Machine That Types What Is Spoken To It, 1913

From time immemorial (or at least since the commercial production of the typewriter in 1873), office procedure went like this: the boss dictated, the steno took it down, and a typist translated the squiggles into type. In 1913, Mr. John B. Flowers, "a young electrical engineer of Brooklyn" did his best to eliminate the middlemen (or, most likely, middlewomen) with an early example of voice-activated technology. Click through for a closer look at Flowers's invention—and its limitations.

A Machine That Types What Is Spoken To It, 1913


Flowers's device tried to recreate the human ear and hand. As explained by Scientific American:

In his apparatus a telephone diaphragm takes the place of the human ear drum; instead of the fibers, he employs a set of steel reeds, respectively tuned to the different overtone frequencies of the alphabet; for nerves he uses electric currents, and for the human hand [on the typewriter keyboard] a bank of solenoids.
There were "serious limitations which must be considered" with Flowers's voice-operated typewriter, chief among them its inability to distinguish between homophones like "to," "too," and "two," and that words like "laugh" would have to be pronounced phonetically in order for the machine to spell them correctly. Luckily, Flowers did "not present his invention as a complete solution of the problem of the voice-operated typewriter, but merely as a step toward that end . . ."