LEAVE A MESSAGE: A South African company invented the worlds first answering machine in 1958, but was hampered by red tape abroad and financial constraints locally.

In 1958, a small South African company patented the Colindictor, the world’s first telephone answering machine. They tried to sell the licence to operate their machine in England, Germany, France, Italy, Israel and the US, but without success. The company decided to focus on the British Post Office (BPO) and took a machine specially modified to meet BPO specifications to London. They later returned to South Africa, leaving the Colindictor with the BPO laboratory, as directed.

Subsequently, the BPO, which was very complimentary about the machine, requested many modifications. Several months later, with the modified equipment re-submitted, the BPO was satisfied, but withheld official approval.

The Colindictor inventors subsequently demonstrated the product in Coventry, Birmingham and London. One international chemical company based in England ordered 100 machines, subject to BPO approval.

The South African company expected the BPO to issue the licence and was therefore dismayed by a call to say the BPO’s legal department had withdrawn its application for a licence. In frustration, Colindictor company executive Lee Dickman, knowing that the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip, was an avid electronics tinkerer, called Buckingham Palace and asked for an appointment with the duke.

To his amazement, the duke’s secretary, an RAF group captain, told Dickman, who was back in London, that he would be called for a meeting. To confuse matters further, the following day he received a call from the BPO, extending an invitation for him to meet the postmaster-general that afternoon.

The postmaster-general told Dickman that he knew about the appointment at Buckingham Palace, but said that the BPO had also been working on a telephone recording device of its own. He felt that it would be fair for them to have the first opportunity to demonstrate their device to the duke. Accordingly, they had arranged to demonstrate their equipment one hour before the South African presentation.

Dickman arrived at Buckingham Palace just in time to see the departing BPO executives and their cutting-edge equipment, transported in three trucks. In contrast, the South African inventor arrived with one second-hand Colindictor in a battered briefcase. His demonstration nevertheless went perfectly, and the duke was very impressed with the device.

Dickman subsequently received a letter from the palace thanking him for the gift of the Colindictor. On his return to South Africa, he received another telegram from the palace asking him to air-freight a second Colindictor to them “as the queen has pinched mine”.

The Colindictor did eventually receive BPO approval, but only to rent, not sell. This meant that considerable additional financing had to be ploughed into the project, which was beyond the means of the company in Joburg. Then the value of the British pound plunged and bankers withdrew their support for the project.

The original Colindictor was large, at 15kg, while the new technology of transistors, printed circuitry and microchips that soon evolved sent the development of the answering machine in a different direction. As a result, the Colindictor did not reach world markets.

The Colindictor is one of many South African inventions that has been taken to the market by foreigners. We need to create a financial environment which ensures that our inventors can take their products to the market with local capital.

l Mike Bruton was the founding director of the Cape Town Sciences Centre and is director of imagineering at MTE Studios. He wrote Great South African Inventions, published by Cambridge University Press. - Cape Argus