Dictaphone Turns 100

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On December 18, Nuance Communications celebrated the centennial of the Dictaphone brand, which it acquired in 2006.

Dictaphone’s acquisition not only brought Nuance into the healthcare arena, but also brought a sense of legacy and history. The parent company, not even 20 years old, is fairly young by comparison to Dictaphone’s 100 years.

In its 100 years, Dictaphone has recorded its share of history. It was used in code-breaking during World War II, recording enemy communiqués; it recorded Neil Armstrong’s famous first words on the moon; was used by President Lyndon Johnson in his inauguration on Air Force One; and even famously recorded the sounds of John F. Kennedy's assassination that led to Johnson's presidency.

The Dictaphone brand name has a long and historied past. The name was copyrighted by the Columbia Gramaphone Co., forbearer to Columbia Records, in 1907. The first Dictaphones Columbia produced were essentially combination lathe and gramophone players that cut out their recordings into synthetic wax cylinders.

The Dictaphone breathed life into the dying cylinder technology, which had been steadily seeing losses in the music industry. Music producers favored the more easily produced, compact, and doubled-sided flat gramophone record disks. The cylinder, however, provided an easy way for personal consumers to make private recordings or for offices and news agencies to begin to make sound recordings for dictation and archival purposes. Dictaphone’s chief early rival, “The Ediphone” from Thomas Edison, offered similar products, but Dictaphone, much to Edison’s personal chagrin, so thoroughly dominated the market that “dictaphone” became the generic term for the machines.

In 1923, Dictaphone spun off from Columbia Gramaphone and became an independent under C.K. Woodridge, the much-beloved president of the International Advertisers Agency and co-founder of National Secretary’s Day. The company continued to use wax cylinders well into 1940s when, spurred by advances made to meet technical demands of the U.S. military, it phased them out in favor of 1947’s plastic carving Dictabelt. Plastic, in turn, gave way to magnetic tape and later hard drive dictation machines as the dictation medium of choice.

The rise of the personal computer in the 1980s eliminated the need for dictation in many enterprises altogether. Dictaphone, sold off to Pitney-Bowes in the 1970s, was forced to adapt, seeing its market share reduced to specialized fields like the healthcare industry and law enforcement, which still required dictation and recording technology in their day-to-day operations.

In 2000, Lernout & Hauspie acquired Dictaphone for $1 billion and incorporated voice recognition software into the Dictaphone hardware for the first time. In the wake of Lernout & Hauspie’s collapse in 2001, the company went into Chapter 11 and re-emerged as an independent until its acquisition by Nuance. That acquisition was a major moment in Nuance's entrance into the healthcare market.

“Nuance’s acquisition of Dictaphone in 2006 jumpstarted its place in healthcare,” says John Shagoury, president of health care and imaging at Nuance.

“By combining technologies we’ve catapulted from a new player in healthcare to a standard in speech recognition with products that serve the radiology specialty, are used in the background to speed the transcription process, and are used by doctors for the creation of real-time electronic medical records,” he adds.

Under Nuance, Dictaphone brought in a company record $55.1 million in the second quarter of 2007. It continues to be a part of Nuance’s plans for future growth.

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