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Black America Library Series

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Our Visual Library Series serves as a powerful antidote to attacks on diversity, Black history studies, Critical Race Theory (CRT), and books by Black Authors by providing a comprehensive perspective on American History.

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They highlight the often-overlooked contributions and experiences of Black individuals and organizations, promoting inclusivity and challenging stereotypes.

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They foster a deep understanding of the Black American Experience, encouraging open dialogue and ultimately promoting a society where diversity and racial justice are celebrated, not attacked.

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  • Writer's pictureT. Brookshire

Echoes of Progress: The Remarkable Legacy of Benjamin Thornton's Answering Machine

In the turbulent era of the early 20th century, where the echoes of racial injustice reverberated through every aspect of American life, a remarkable African American inventor emerged from the shadows of discrimination to change the way we communicate. Benjamin Thornton, a man of vision and determination, found himself at the crossroads of innovation and adversity. His invention, seemingly born out of the grit and struggle of his time, would set a precedent for the answering machines that we still rely on today.



AI-generated image using the only existing photo of Benjamin Thorton


Background

It was 1930, and Benjamin Thornton, residing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, sought to bridge the gap between people and their telephones. In an era when telecommunication was still in its infancy, and the oppressive weight of racism bore down on Black inventors, Benjamin embarked on a journey that would revolutionize the way we handle missed calls.


Thornton's brainchild, the telephone message recorder, was nothing short of groundbreaking. Fitted with a turntable for a record disc, an electric motor, and a cleverly designed electric switch that connected it to the telephone line, this invention was poised to redefine communication. In an age when telephone operators played a pivotal role in connecting calls, Benjamin's invention automated the process, heralding a new era of efficiency. He filed for his patent for his invention in April and received approval on November 10, 1931 (US. Patent # 1,831,331).



Thornton received his patent in November 1931.



A later generation of Answering Machines manufactured by Ansafone.



Novelty of Recording the Message

The significance of Thornton's creation extended beyond mere message recording. He recognized the importance of knowing when a call came in, a feature that would become a hallmark of answering machines for decades to come. With a meticulous eye for detail, he integrated a time clock into his invention, aligning it with the disc-changing mechanism. When the motor sprang to life, recording a message, it simultaneously imprinted the precise time of reception on a strip of paper. Every message received was marked in chronological order, an innovation that eliminated any ambiguity regarding call times.


A vintage retro woodgrain answering machine manufactured by Radio Shack in 1983.


Thornton's inventive spirit didn't stop there. In an era where personalization was a distant dream, he incorporated a feature that allowed users to record their own outgoing messages. In 1935, this was nothing short of revolutionary. Little did he know that his ingenuity would lay the foundation for answering machines as we know them today.

While it's true that Benjamin Thornton was not the first to conceive of devices for recording phone messages, his creation was a giant leap forward. Combining the ability to record and send messages with precise time tracking was unprecedented. Thornton's invention, often overshadowed by history's cruel biases, was, in essence, the progenitor of the answering machine.


Answering Machines Go Mainstream

By 1984, the answering machine had evolved and become widely recognized in the United States. It was no longer a luxury reserved for a select few but a common tool accessible to all. The drastic reduction in price made it an affordable addition to every household with a telephone line. By 1991, the digital answering machine emerged, discarding tapes in favor of solid-state hardware.


Legacy

Today, the answering machine has seamlessly transitioned into our smartphones, tucked away in the palm of our hands. While technological advancements continue to reshape our world, it's essential to remember the resilience of inventors like Benjamin Thornton. In the face of adversity, Thornton's invention not only bridged the gaps of communication but also defied the shackles of racism.



The more modern digital answering machine that gained popularity in 1991.


Benjamin Thornton's story is a testament to the indomitable human spirit and the capacity for innovation, even in the darkest of times. His answering machine, conceived against the backdrop of racial prejudice, set in motion a revolution in communication. As we embrace the digital age, we owe a debt of gratitude to Thornton, a pioneer who paved the way for the answering machines that remain integral to our lives today.



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