Did Kafka Invent the Answering Machine?

The Paris Review shares two excerpts from Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka? 99 Finds that reveal a new side to Kafka

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“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.”

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. 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. Bauer even appeared in an advertising film that Lindström produced and distributed as a flip-book. In this film, which is only a few seconds long, she can be seen working with the parlograph and the typewriter simultaneously.

Felice Bauer never had a chance to make a profit off of Kafka’s 1913 idea, because the combination of a telephone and a dictation machine had already been invented and patented—including the functions of an answering machine. The engineer Ernest O. Kumberg had invented the “Telephonograph” in 1900, and the 1909 edition of the dictionary Meyers Konversationslexikon describes the “Telegraphon,” produced in Denmark. However, these devices were quite labor-intensive and never enjoyed widespread popularity. The first answering machine suitable for household use, the “Isophon,” became available in the 1950s. [Read More]

Translated from the German by Kurt Beals. Reiner Stach, born in 1951 in Saxony, is the author of the definitive biography of Kafka, trans. Shelley Frisch.

Is That Kafka? will be published by New Directions on March 21.

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