When Franz Kafka Invented the Answering Machine (1913)


We’ve all had the expe­ri­ence, punc­tu­at­ed by inter­minable wait­ing, of cir­cling over and over again through some enor­mous com­pa­ny’s auto­mat­ic tele­phone answer­ing sys­tem. Whether or not it counts as gen­uine­ly “Kafkaesque” may be up for debate, but we do have some evi­dence that the tech­nol­o­gy itself, or at least the idea of it, does indeed trace back to the author of The Meta­mor­pho­sis and The Tri­al him­self. This comes out in Kaf­ka biog­ra­ph­er Rein­er Stach’s new book of pho­tographs, let­ters, and oth­er dis­cov­er­ies called Is that Kaf­ka? 99 Finds.

“Although Kaf­ka was timid and skep­ti­cal in his inter­ac­tions with the lat­est tech­ni­cal gadgets—particularly when they inter­vened in social communication—he was always fas­ci­nat­ed by peo­ple who knew how to han­dle these devices as a mat­ter of course,” writes Stach in an excerpt at the Paris Review. “That includ­ed his fiancée Felice Bauer, who worked in the Berlin offices of Carl Lind­ström AG, where she was in charge of mar­ket­ing for the ‘par­lo­graph,’ a dic­ta­tion machine.” It must have required no great leap of Kafka’s for­mi­da­ble imag­i­na­tion to dream up “a cross between a tele­phone and a par­lo­graph,” which he described in a 1913 let­ter to Bauer:

The inven­tion of a cross between a tele­phone and a par­lo­graph, it real­ly can’t be that hard. Sure­ly by the day after tomor­row you’ll be report­ing to me that the project is already a suc­cess. Of course that would have an enor­mous impact on edi­to­r­i­al offices, news agen­cies, etc. Hard­er, but doubt­less pos­si­ble as well, would be a com­bi­na­tion of the gramo­phone and the tele­phone. Hard­er because you can’t under­stand a gramo­phone at all, and a par­lo­graph can’t ask it to speak more clear­ly. A com­bi­na­tion of the gramo­phone and the tele­phone wouldn’t have such great sig­nif­i­cance in gen­er­al either, but for peo­ple like me, who are afraid of the tele­phone, it would be a relief. But then peo­ple like me are also afraid of the gramo­phone, so we can’t be helped at all. By the way, it’s a nice idea that a par­lo­graph could go to the tele­phone in Berlin, call up a gramo­phone in Prague, and the two of them could have a lit­tle con­ver­sa­tion with each oth­er. But my dear­est the com­bi­na­tion of the par­lo­graph and the tele­phone absolute­ly has to be invent­ed.

The mod­ern answer­ing machine took some time to devel­op, attain­ing its first com­mer­cial­ly suc­cess­ful form, the Elec­tron­ic Sec­re­tary, in 1949, a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry after Kafka’s death. But alas, unbe­knownst to him, some­one had also beat­en him to it when first he thought it up. “The com­bi­na­tion of a tele­phone and a dic­ta­tion machine had already been invent­ed and patent­ed — includ­ing the func­tions of an answer­ing machine,” writes Stach, cit­ing the engi­neer Ernest O. Kum­berg’s inven­tion of some­thing called the “Tele­phono­graph” in 1900. This might seem like just one more dis­ap­point­ment in a life full of them, but remem­ber: just over a cen­tu­ry on, when voice­mail and even new­er tech­nolo­gies have replaced the answer­ing machine, nobody describes any­thing with the word “Kum­ber­gian.”

You can pick up a copy of Is that Kaf­ka? 99 Finds here.

via The Paris Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Find Works by Kaf­ka in our Free eBooks col­lec­tion

Four Franz Kaf­ka Ani­ma­tions: Enjoy Cre­ative Ani­mat­ed Shorts from Poland, Japan, Rus­sia & Cana­da

Franz Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Let­ters

The Art of Franz Kaf­ka: Draw­ings from 1907–1917

The Ani­mat­ed Franz Kaf­ka Rock Opera

What Does “Kafkaesque” Real­ly Mean? A Short Ani­mat­ed Video Explains

Down­load Jim Rockford’s Answer­ing Machine Mes­sages as MP3s

Mark Twain’s Patent­ed Inven­tions for Bra Straps and Oth­er Every­day Items

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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