Do you remember how voice mail technology circa 1991 worked?
May 14, 2020 6:09 PM   Subscribe

This is another in my series of questions about telephone technology in 1991.

My fictional character has lost her house in the 1991 Oakland/Berkeley fire. I read that shortly after the fire, the phone company set it up so that the phone numbers of people whose homes burned would still be operational. Thus, my character would be able to call her number and retrieve messages to her nonexistent phone.

I'm trying to get a sense of how this might have worked.

I'm not even sure what the technology was back then, but would there likely have been space for a LOT of messages? So conceivably she could call and hear: You have 78 messages? Or would there have been very limited space? And thus, if the messages were quite long, she might only have one or two? And if someone was leaving a long message, might they be cut off?

And, Key Question: Could she skip over a message without listening and without erasing it?

Anything you can remember/surmise about how this might have worked would be very helpful. Thank you!
posted by swheatie to Technology (28 answers total)
If you could find old phone books of that era, you might be able to find the pages that described how phone features, like *66 or *69 worked... IIRC *98 was the Vertical Service Code for voicemail.
posted by Wild_Eep at 6:20 PM on May 14, 2020

The voicemail we had in 1991 was on a physical machine recorded on tape. So wouldn’t have survived a fire. You called in and the machine rewound itself and then played through its messages.

This Vice article suggests that was still the common tech at that time. I’m not sure when digital voicemail came in. You could also hear the replay as per theSeinfeld clip in that article.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:28 PM on May 14, 2020 [7 favorites]

Voicemail was definitely a thing in 1991, but mainly for businesses, not home use. I worked at IBM at the time, and the company was very particular about greetings and stuff. IIRC, the actual features were not all that different than basic voicemail systems are today. Home users still mostly had answering machines with cassette tapes.
posted by briank at 6:34 PM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

It would have been uncommon to have voice mail through the phone company in 1991. Not saying that the service didn't exist, but it wouldn't have been common; most people who had "voice mail" in '91 would have had a physical answering machine plugged into the wall, and that answering machine would have contained a microcassette tape for receiving incoming messages.

This 1989 article talking about at-the-time new phone features doesn't mention phone company provided voicemail, just answering machines.

I don't recall having phone company voicemail on a landline phone until the later '90s, as they started to compete with cell phone service.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:35 PM on May 14, 2020

Here’s a 1991 NYT article on home answering machines and a new digital chip machine - now not just for Yuppies!
posted by warriorqueen at 6:38 PM on May 14, 2020

I don't remember back to 1991, but in the mid to late 90s there was definitely a time limit. The recording would cut you off and offer to let you tape over yourself (yes, physical tape) if you needed to say things more quickly.

I also don't think remote access was a thing until much much later. You needed to press a button on the physical answering machine. There was no "you have 15 new messages and 3 saved messages," because there was no way to save or skip or delete. It was like a little cassette recorder hooked up to your phone.
posted by basalganglia at 6:40 PM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

And should have scrolled down in it further: “ In the more distant future, meaning several years from now, A.T.& T. thinks home systems may begin to resemble mini-versions of its Audix business system, in which calls and messages are routed to electronic "mail boxes."” Sounds like for everyday consumers centralized voicemail wasn’t a thing yet. That article is really funny btw.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:41 PM on May 14, 2020

Okay so right around that time -- I can't swear but I think *right* at that time -- Mr. BlahLaLa and I moved into a place in LA and with our new home phone we got access to an answering system run by the phone company. The way it worked was when I got home I'd pick up the phone, and if I heard a sort of stuttering dial tone that meant we had messages. And I remember I'd then call a specific number to hear the messages. You could definitely skip messages, save some, delete some. We eventually canceled it because there was a monthly fee, but I remember feeling like we were using a snazzy futuristic service that was very special.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:50 PM on May 14, 2020 [8 favorites]

LA Times article on April 20 1991 explaining the new service, which was piloted in Northern CA.

Try "pac bell" as keyword, perhaps...
posted by calgirl at 7:08 PM on May 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

I can't swear but I think *right* at that time

This was absolutely brand new in late 91/92. I doubt many people would have had it by the time the fires happened in Oct 91.

One solution for the OP would be if the character used an answering service. Those date back to the 50s or 60s. To put it in contemporary lingo, it was like having a secretary in the cloud. People called your number and a human answered with "shweatie's phone, would you like to leave a message" and then they would talk and the secretary would write down what they said, verbatim.

Then you'd call your own number and they'd answer and you'd identify yourself and ask if there were any messages and then they'd read them back to you. You could definitely ask, "Did such and such call" and they'd read you those messages first.

You can see this in many movies, especially in the 60s and 70s. I remember clearly a scene in David Holzman's Diary where he calls and the service has to relay what is to him a devastating message.

Here's a scene from Rosemary's Baby where she calls and gets a service. Important to note that the person on the other line is not in the office of the person she's calling but in another location altogether. Normally that person does not call the client with messages but waits for the client to check in.
posted by dobbs at 7:13 PM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Calgirl's article -- that's exactly the one we used.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:14 PM on May 14, 2020

I'm pretty sure I had phone-company-administered voicemail when I was in college in the early '90s. I remember the stuttering dial tone as a signal that I had messages. I can't say for certain whether I had it as early as '91, but it seems possible.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 7:18 PM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I also don't think remote access was a thing until much much later. You needed to press a button on the physical answering machine. There was no "you have 15 new messages and 3 saved messages," because there was no way to save or skip or delete. It was like a little cassette recorder hooked up to your phone.

I had voicemail - including remote access - on my phone in my freshman dorm room in 1994. I don’t remember if I was familiar with voicemail before then, but I also don’t remember being blown away by the technology when I got to college.
posted by amro at 7:42 PM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

We had this in 91 or 92. You called in to a number that wasn't your home number, it was the voicemail service then you punched in your mailbox number (which was our number) and then a passcode and you could listen to your messages, delete them, save them etc. It was usually easy to guess other people's passcodes because the whole family shared it so most chose something easy to remember like their street address. It was a more innocent time.

I think the cutoff for an individual message was pretty short, like 30 seconds or a minute. People got cut off a LOT, it was common for people to just keep calling back and talking, leaving multiple messages, especially if they knew you were on the other line anyway. Your voicemail could fill up so people couldn't leave more messages but usually that was because the person hadn't been wiping their old messages. Back then you had to wait till the end of the message to erase it and people didn't bother. This is probably the main difference from today's voicemail. Once in a while you'd have to listen to them all and erase them or it would fill up.

Also we call it wiping messages not deleting them, I don't know when that changed.
posted by fshgrl at 7:49 PM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I graduated from high school and started college in 1991. Regular people did not use an answering service for home phones. We all had answering machines, the kind that used a cassette tape. Older machines used full-size cassette tapes, newer ones at the time used minicasette tapes.

You did not know how many messages you had. You just listened until they were done.
posted by desuetude at 8:03 PM on May 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

In the movie Sneakers (1992), one character has a voice mail service instead of an answering machine.

The phone phreaking archive describe voice mail services from the early 1990s that usually had toll-free (“1-800”) numbers. Instead of dialing your personal number, a caller would need to dial the service’s toll-free number (and then enter your mailbox number) to leave you a message. You would dial the same number to check your messages.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:10 PM on May 14, 2020

The monthly fee was a pain, but I started subscribing to the service right around that time because I'd already had two answering machines fried during thunderstorms.
posted by kate4914 at 9:16 PM on May 14, 2020

Best answer: 91 is a few years too early for centralized messaging; as people have said, this kind of thing had to wait for digital voice recording chips to become cost effective (or even get invented). Maybe a cutting-edge pilot program by Bell Laboratories (which might have been Lucent Technologies by then).

But given a few years poetic license leeway, here's how it would have functioned.
When her nonexistent phone rings five times, the incoming caller gets switched over to the voice mail system. They hear either a generic phone company recording ("The caller you have reached is unavailable. Please leave a brief message after the tone.") or something she would have called in and recorded herself ("this is Max, leave it at the beep").

Total recording time per account would have been pretty short, maybe 5 or 10 minutes maximum, with a hard 30 second limit on messages. You'd get the recording, hear the beep, start talking, then there would be another beep exactly 30 seconds later, cutting it off and ending the call. So it would be pretty common to call again and leave another message, picking up where you left off. Often people would sweatily hem and haw for 15 seconds and get the beep in their ear just as they were getting to the good part.

Retrieving her messages would involve dialing her own number, and when the recording kicked in, hitting the * button a few times (or some other code) and then a PIN; this would switch over to the playback system instead of the recording system.

There would have been the ability to skip / save / delete messages by using the dial pad; press 6 to skip ahead, press 4 to go back, press 2 to save, press 8 to delete. For help ptess 0.
You'd want to delete your unimportant messages, as every saved or unplayed message took up part of your 5 or 10 total minutes total storage; at which point any new callers would simply get an automated recording thar the mailbox is full and a disconnect.
The stuttering dial tone was the signifier that new unplayed messages were available. Her routine would have been to come home and pick up the phone and listen to the dial tone for a sec. Sustained BOOOO landline operating note? No calls. BOOPBOOPBOOP? At least one new voicemail.
If again, she was really on the cutting edge years ahead, her physical phone unit would have a chip in it to detect the special dial tone, which would blink a red LED next to the number pad as a visual indicator of new messages.

But you say her house burned down, so she would have been retrieving her messages 'remotely', without any indicator at all. (Unless she had a pager? Which is a whole other thing.) She'd have to remember (or plotwise, forget) to check for any new messages.

Which would be dialing her own number, from anywhere (hey, there would still have been payphones in '91), letting it ring a few times, then hearing the sound of her own voice, so different before the fire, and jabbing at the dial to skip that and get into her messages. Poking at it some more to skip through four sequential calls from Mom, something from her boyfriend that cut off in the middle but he didn't call back to finish, etc.
For your key question, you could skip, but since there's no voice equivalent of an email subject line, you listen to the first few seconds, identify the voice, and press 6 or whatever to skip. "Hey, it's Paul..." ~jabs 6~ "Nope, not in the mood for his drama tonight, Next."
Oh, and she would be doing this with a landline phone held to her ear: speakerphones were still kinda rare, so there's no walking around getting dressed while playing voicemails aloud. (Although with a long cord, you could bend your neck to pin the handset to your shoulder while you unlaced your boots or squeezed into jeans.)
posted by bartleby at 10:00 PM on May 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

We definitely had a tape-based answering machine in 1991, and that was not unusual. I'm not entirely sure things like *66-*69 or were available yet in my area then. I know I had some of the * services in my first apartment in the fall of 96, but I had a physical tape-based machine. (I think by then, digital-saving machines were around, but expensive.) I had a half-hour long tape in it, and one day there were multiple emergency situations going on, and my mom literally filled the entire thing by herself in multiple calls. I think voicemail might have been available, but if it was, it was expensive. My parents got voicemail in January 1998. It would have been late 98 when I got it, and I only did because it was free, since I was working for the phone company. (If I remember correctly, it was $9.99 just for voicemail, but I got the whole $20+ (28?) package of extras so I would know them and sell them.)

And tape-based answering machines pretty much have no chance in a house fire. Our house fire was in 1997, and though the fire was at least two rooms away, the heat killed the tape. (Oddly, my cassettes in a case one more room over survived quite nicely.)
posted by stormyteal at 10:08 PM on May 14, 2020

Although this type of service was starting to become available (although relatively few people had access to it), I don’t believe I ever heard it referred to with the term “voice mail” until at least the mid-1990s. We just called it “phone messages,” “answering machine,” or “answering service.”
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:38 PM on May 14, 2020

As others have said, 1991 was still primarily physical cassette tape voicemail. Almost certainly the service provided by the phone companies after the disaster was call forwarding, not anything related to voicemail. So she could provide a forwarding number (of whoever’s house she was staying at) and people who dialed her would reach her there.
posted by amaire at 12:29 AM on May 15, 2020

Response by poster: Bartleby, bless you. That gives me what I wanted to know. It was in fact voice mail in 1991. This is from the SF Chronicle at the time:

Pacific Bell is offering two types of service free of cost to displaced residents, said company spokesman Craig Watts.

The first is an electronic voice-mail box that allows users to record a personal message, using a current home phone number, and register incoming calls, with access from any touchtone phone. To set this service up, call The Message Center at (800) 427-7715, extension 345. Callers should identify themselves to service representatives as East Bay firevictims.
posted by swheatie at 5:05 AM on May 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

We didn't even get caller id until 1996, it was a separate little device you had to buy with a tiny screen, and you could scroll through and see the numbers of calls you missed. Man it was so cool.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:22 AM on May 15, 2020

I know we had corporate voicemail in the early 90s, I don’t know why Ma Bell couldn’t have had it, even if it wasn’t widely available to consumers.
posted by lhauser at 9:56 AM on May 15, 2020

I definitely also had this stuttering-dial-tone voicemail in the early '90s, although I can't remember now if we called it "voicemail" or not. May have just been "message service". It was something we paid an extra fee to the phone company to have, and you could access the messages from your own phone using a star code or from another phone by dialing your own number, hearing your voice leaving the outbound greeting, and then dialing a star code. There was no way to tell that you had messages if you couldn't hear the stutter dial tone -- if you were out and about, you had to call in and go through the whole process to check.
posted by mccxxiii at 10:10 AM on May 15, 2020

I worked at an answering service in '91, and we provided this technology.

The only exceptions I'd take to Bartleby's summary (other than wide availability), is length of message. The message length limit was considerably over 30 seconds.

Our system was provided by StarTel, and provided such additional services such as:
  1. Outgoing calls: You could record a call and provide a list of numbers for this message to be sent to.
  2. Wakeup calls: A variant on the above, but it would keep calling until you answered and pressed the right button on the phone.
  3. Message notification: You could set the system to call you at another number when you got a message.
These features were an upcharge. Out default was just simple voicemail.
posted by Tabitha Someday at 1:01 PM on May 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

Obligatory getting cut off by the beep cringe scene:
Answering Machine Meltdown
(This from '96, and it's obviously a tape machine, since she picked up mid-recording. But it's a classic, and why everyone just texts now.)
posted by bartleby at 3:04 PM on May 15, 2020

Around '91 at university I was working for the Telecom department. The campus had it's own giant PBX buried in a vault and Audix for voicemail. I was the one who automated the crap out of the weekly voicemail usage reports. It was terribly large capacity due to it's campus wide usage by staff/faculty that would not tolerate something like a 30 second message but you did have to eventually delete things. You could dial your own number or there was an 800 number to avoid any long-distance charges on your bill. Also if you had the right code you could use the system to go out and international calls. You didn't have to not get an answer on the other end to leave a message, you could also dial in and just send a message (even to multiple boxes at the same time). There's probably no problem at all thinking that in that sort of emergency system the phone company *could* give some residents that business class voicemail.

The whole automating voicemail reporting is a kick-ass story for a geek thread.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:57 PM on May 15, 2020

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