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The Literary Digest
Science and Invention Section
June 15, 1912
The practical possibilities of the dictograph have become pretty well known since William J. Burns used it in his preventive work. It is positively unsafe for anybody to say anything anywhere now unless he is perfectly willing to have a stenographer take it down. No dictograph evidence has yet appeared in suits for damages for broken hearts, but it may be well for proposing swains to first have a look around to see if the little tell-tale machine is under the sofa. Your conversation with your banker or your lawyer, your dicker for a horse or a cow with your neighbor – all must be couched in diplomatic language, for an unseen interviewer may be taking down your every word. As Edward Lyell Fox tells us in Popular Electricity (Chicago, June), the dime-novelist who first wrote “Hist! The Very Walls Have Ears!” wrote better than he knew.
The dictograph, Mr. Fox says, has in the last six months revolutionized criminal prevention. He writes:
“In walls, under sofa and chair, in chandelier, behind a desk, beside a window, it has hidden – the unseen listener to secret conversations. The secrets of prison cells have been tapped, hotel rooms and offices have given up incriminating conversation. To representatives of the law, it has proclaimed loudly the whispered words of cunning malefactors. It has figured sensationally in the undoing of dynamiters, legislative bribetakers, grafters high and crooks low, across the continent. It eavesdropped in McManigal’s cell in the Columbus, Ohio, bribery case, in the Lorimer case, in the office of the Iron Workers’ Union at Indianapolis, in Gary, Ind., in - who knows? always listening where we know not, it promises more and more sensational disclosures, more confessions – an ‘automatic third degree.’”
An interview with K.M. Turner, the inventor of the device, is thus described and reported by Mr. Fox:
“For a time Mr. Turner generalized in scientific theories applied to his invention. This over, he confest the invention of the acousticon and the interior telephone, as well as the dictograph. And as abruptly he asked: “Have you been dictographed?” “On general principles, I said, ‘No,’ whereupon he asked me to stand in the most remote corner of the room and whisper, ‘Do you hear me?’ This I did, pitching my voice so low that Turner himself couldn’t have heard me. Imagine my surprise, then, when, an instant later, there issued from a small wooden box beside his desk a distinct, full-toned voice that said: “’Yes! Of course I hear you.’ I moved toward the box and stood close against it. In a moment the invisible voice reported that a queer rustling sound had been heard. Mr. Turner said it was the motion of my clothes caused by breathing. I wonder if that infernal ear, with its electric-charged wires leading to some man in another part of the building could hear my heart beat. “’That!’ suddenly remarked Turner, with a wave of his head, ‘is the dictograph for the business man!’
“And, rising, he dissected it verbally for me. The commercial dictograph’ consists principally of the transmitting-disk or sound-collector, which is the same as that of the ‘criminal dictograph,’ and an orifice which talks back the answer of the person at the ‘other end of the wire.’In the box are half a dozen pegs which may be deprest to put the user in touch with as many instruments in adjoining offices. In fact, it is a wonderfully simplified form of the interior telephone. Only there is no ‘leaking’ switchboard, and no bother of taking down receivers from hooks. All you do is to sit in your office, talk and listen to the answers that, full-toned, come throbbing from the box. Thus you can dictate to a stenographer in an adjoining room, and hold a business conference with several other rooms simultaneously.
“’Corporations will have the meeting-rooms fitted with dictograph ears,’ remarked Turner when we were seated. ‘It is applicable to all lines of business and professions.’ Then he told me how an officer of a corporation wanted to know the secrets of a room which had solid walls and no furniture except a desk in the center. Over the desk hung a chandelier, and at the base of the chandelier was a metal ball. In this was rigged a dictograph sound-collector - the unseen ear. And a noted banker, he told me, has the instrument hidden in a clock on his desk. If he wants the conversation of a caller recorded he presses a button under the rug, with his foot to notify a stenographer in the next room. She, pad and pencil in hand, sits beside her dictograph and writes.
“Let us dwell momentarily now upon the ‘preventive dictograph.’ Last year, William J. Burns was regarded as the flesh-and-blood unification of Sherlock Holmes and M. Lecoq, with an Arséne Lupin dare-deviltry. That was before it became known that he used the dictograph. This with all respect to Burn’s acumen as a preventive, for he knew enough to make use of the latest that science had devised for catching criminals. Burns was the first American to see the immense possibilities of the instrument in preventive work. He is so enamored with it that he always carries one in his pocket. Fictional preventives carry automatics and handcuffs. Burns carries a dictograph.
“Let us see what this instrument is. Turning it over in our hand, we estimate that it weighs a half-pound. If we put it in a little leather case, it looks like a small pocket kodak. Regarding its mechanics, there is a sound-collector or transmitter, a receiving-disk, a couple of small dry batteries, and a double length of black silk-covered wire. The sound-collector is a disk of black hard rubber, weighing a few ounces. It is about three inches across, and an inch thick. There is a metal eye by which it may be hung on a nail behind a desk or a picture. The wires are inserted at the lower end of the disk. To the receiving-disk which the eavesdropper holds to his ear, the wires are connected at their terminus. Necessary current is provided by the dry batteries. Unlike the ‘commercial dictograph.’ no provision for a chat between two persons is made. An eavesdropper doesn’t want to talk back to the person whose conversation he is overhearing.”
This sounds simple, yet the construction of the mechanical ear, we are told, is most intricate. On the outer extremity of the sound-collecting disk is a series of oblong, semicircular openings. Inside there is a cone, the point of which is an electrode, and which reaches the center of the disk. The sound-vibrations, striking the bottom of the cone, climb a circular mountain, so to speak, and become focused at the peak. The action suggests a burning glass. The disk gathers the vibrations within a circle about nine and a half inches in circumference, and transforms them into electrical impulses to be sent over a wire.
To quote further:
“Not until a year ago did the first published notice of the dictograph come. Then it was in connection with the Illinois shop-grafting case. Burns had such success with the metal ear in running down the grafters that he tried it on the McNamara dynamiters. He’s been trying it on people ever since. Last summer the ear overheard the legislative grafters at Columbus, Ohio. The incident disgusted these higher crooks exceedingly. Not so the honest population of the city. They held a dictograph celebration. To-day, you can buy dictograph cocktails at Columbus. What better proof of its popularity could be given? Moreover, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the dictograph as a legal evidence-getter.
“The surprising part about it all is that despite the publicity, the more it is used the more effective it becomes. Most people scoff at it until they have been sent to jail by its agency. Even then, many of them are inclined to doubt. You can not get around the fact that men must talk, and the dictograph must listen. They can not see it; they can not find it ...
“I recall an instance that Mr. Turner told me. Two Italian crooks were placed in the cell of a Pennsylvania jail. In the cell was a dictograph, and some distance away, waiting for the electric current to carry their conversation to him over the wires, sat an operator. For five days, fearing that they would be overheard, the Italians kept silent. On the sixth day they could endure it no longer and broke into speech. And the metal eavesdropper heard every word.”
Detecting The Designs of Vesuvius
Prof. Frank Perret, the American scientist, listening by Dictograph to the volcano's rumblings. Like all Dictograph victims, it is safe to say Vesuvius is unaware of the eavesdropping.