The Unknown Early IVR

by Colin Berkshire

I built one of the first phone menu systems ever. The year was 1976 and as a college sophomore project I built a system that would let callers dial extensions and menus. A simple answering machine would answer and play a single menu. The user could then touch-tone an extension number or a menu choice. The system would then flash the switch hook and pulse the phone number and hang up. It was pretty simple. (And to be honest…not that reliable.)

I later worked for a pioneer in telephony that made voice response systems. In the 1980s there was a lot of patent litigation going on over automated attendants and phone menus. Every time one of those patent trolls would contact our company I would send them a copy of my sophomore college project, along with photos, and we would never hear from them again. (Their patents were all filed after 1976.)

That company was acquired in the late 1980s by a big voice mail company and that voice mail company shortly thereafter quit paying royalties for IVR technology. It was eventually the end to the IVR patent trolls.

In looking back I never thought that this little sophomore phone project was all that important or innovative. Nobody ever suggested I seek a patent. The university I was going to did implement it (it was required by the phone company to be behind a protective coupler in those days.) The main use was so that people could direct dial to extensions when the switchboard was closed.

Again, it was just a simple answering machine, and a touch-tone receiver that could do DTMF-to-pulse conversion (the university phone system was all rotary dial.) We ended up with two versions of this custom box. One for the Centrex II (flash transfer) lines and one for the 701 SxS PBX which required two lines because it didn’t support flash transfers.

What a blast from the past.