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May 10, 2018

When Edison chose not to invent speech-to-text tech

In 1911, the former mayor of Kingston, Jamaica, wrote a letter [pdf] to Thomas Alva Edison declaring that “The days of sitting down and writing one’s thoughts are now over” … at least if Edison were to agree to take his invention of the voice recorder just one step further and invent a device that transcribes voice recordings into speech. It was, alas, an idea too audacious for its time.

Here’s the text of Philip Cohen Stern’s letter:

Dear Sir :-

Your world wide reputation has induced me to trouble you with the following :-

As by talking in the in the Gramaphone [sic] we can have our own voices recorded why can this not in some way act upon a typewriter and reproduce the speech in typewriting

Under the present condition we dictate our matter to a shorthand writer who then has to typewrite it. What a labour saving device it would be if we could talk direct to the typewriter itself! The convenience of it would be enormous. It frequently occurs that a man’s best thoughts occur to him after his business hours and afetr [sic] his stenographer and typist have left and if he had such an instrument he would be independent of their presence.

The days of sitting down and writing out one’s thoughts are now over. It is not alone that there is always the danger in the process of striking out and repairing as we go along, but I am afraid most business-men have lost the art by the constant use of stenographer and their thoughts won’t run into their fingers. I remember the time very well when I could not think without a pen in my hand, now the reverse is the case and if I walk about and dictate the result is not only quicker in time but better in matter; and it occurred to me that such an instrument as I have described is possible and that if it be possible there is no man on earth but you who could do it

If my idea is worthless I hope you will pardon me for trespassing on your time and not denounce me too much for my stupidity. If it is not, I think it is a machine that would be of general utility not only in the commercial world but also for Public Speakers etc.

I am unfortunately not an engineer only a lawyer. If you care about wasting a few lines on me, drop a line to Philip Stern, Barrister-at-Law at above address, marking “Personal” or “Private” on the letter.

Yours very truly,
[signed] Philip Stern.

At the top, Edison has written:

The problem you speak of would be enormously difficult I cannot at present time imagine how it could be done.

The scan of the letter lives at Rutger’s Thomas A. Edison Papers Digital Edition site: “Letter from Philip Cohen Stern to Thomas Alva Edison, June 5th, 1911,” Edison Papers Digital Edition, accessed May 6, 2018, http://edison.rutgers.edu/digital/items/show/57054. Thanks to Rutgers for mounting the collection and making it public. And a special thanks to Lewis Brett Smiler, the extremely helpful person who noted Stern’s letter to my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis, as a result of a talk she gave recently on The Novelist in the Digital Age.

By the way, here’s Philip Stern’s obituary.

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