Smith-Corona's voice letters by post: dead media

Here's a weird bit of dead media: a Smith-Corona audio-letter that used a "Letterpack cartridge" (which appears to be a 3.5" floppy disc) to record and play back personal voice-letters sent by post. The apparatus is a fascinating dead branch in design history, something that looks like it might be descended from a desktop intercom box, and distinctly unrelated to the apparatus we put up to our faces and heads in this era.

This can really be seen as an arbitrage point between high long distance tariffs by monopoly telco operators and a willingness to tolerate delays in personal voice communications.

Where are they now? Smith-Corona


    1. Exactly – but there’s the source of the marketing failure: red high heels go with just 50% of the target demographic.

    1. Long distance phone calls back then were unbelievably expensive. With something like this, you could get your thoughts together, and re-record if you screwed up. Think of it as a precursor to texting. Only with a much slower response time.

      1. heh, wouldn’t a more logical precursor to texting be regular snailmail letters?

        I like to think of this tech as a precursor to HeyTell :-]

  1. We had these when they came out.  They were mag tape, (1/8″ or so), and I suppose were nice if you didn’t have a phone or (as we did) live overseas, but basically, crap.

    1.  That makes a lot more sense. I was going to say – that looks absolutely nothing like a 3.5-inch floppy, nor would that format be practical for voice storage, let alone be in a handheld device @ $70 per PAIR.

  2. When I was a kid, late 60’s early 70’s, we used to exchange cassette tapes with my grandparents.  We lived in Southern California and they lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Any long distance calls were kept to a minimum.  We still have some of them.  Being able to hear my 4 year old self is pretty fun.

  3. I have a few of the earlier 3″ spools of 1/4″ wide reel tape with mailers for sending audio letters, but never heard of this bizarre format. 

    I guess it didn’t take over the world.

    1. It’s possible this pre-dated the standard tape recorder (which Wikipedia tells me was introduced in 1964).

    2. Because portable cassette tape recorders around that time (like the Norelco Carry-Corder 150) were like $100 for a single device, not a pair.

    3. See the granny in the ad there? This device was perfect for technophobes who didn’t want to have to thread magnetic tape through rollers and heads and spools and such. The tape was a self-contained cartridge that you pushed into the back of the device, much like an 8-track tape, or an N64 cartridge. The sound quality and tape length was pure crap though, which is probably why it didn’t catch on.

    4.  As I commented in the linked page, in the early to mid 60’s my aunt and grandmother would communicate via tape recorders.

      I know telephone long distance rates were exorbitant at the time, but it’s hard to imagine the cost of two tape recorders would yield a payback in any reasonable length of time.

  4. Smith-Corona had these odd 2.8″ floppy diskettes for their word processor typewriter units, but I wouldn’t think these would have been used for voice.  They probably didn’t hold enough for that to be practical.

  5. and in 20 years, this will be a post about some fossil dug up and wondered over by the cyber glitteratti, something known as a blackberry.

  6. Thank you for posting this! We owned a pair of these in the late ’60s, but I couldn’t remember what they were called! Our pair was white, not orange. My dad was stationed at Beale AFB in CA at the time. We would record and exchange messages with my grandparents in Georgia. The tape cartridge was convenient, and what made it unique (sort of worked like an 8-track tape), but the sound quality was truly rotten, and the tapes were only a few minutes long. It was almost impossible to understand what people were saying on them. When we moved to RAF Mildenhall in England in 1970, we upgraded to standard cassettes. Vastly superior.

  7. My dad bought several of these on sale from Sears for about $10 a piece back in 1970, and distributed them to various friends and family including my grandmother.  She was a little uneasy about using it, and we used to wonder why her audio “letters” were so stilted until we discovered that she would write everything she wanted to say out on paper and then read it back into the machine!

  8. People bought these because a) long distance calls were ungodly expensive b) cassette and 8-track tapes were even more expensive c) they were small and super easy to use. Yes, the sound quality really sucked but it was more personal than a letter. Actually, given how expensive calls were, especially overseas, these actually would pay for themselves. Still, it’s not just a lower cost proposition, it was a really good way to hear a family members voice.

  9. It’s been established that these used a tape cartridge, but as an aside, there _did_ exist 2″ floppy disks.  Originally they were made for some type of early digital video camera, but I have an early Zenith portable computer that booted from ROM and used the same 2″ disks for data storage.

  10. Note the fatigues and the date. Long-distance calls to Vietnam were not really an option. And in 1966 or 1965, when one figures the product was designed, it probably seemed that the war would be going on forever. Sales of  100,000 units or so a year would have been nothing to sneeze at.

    In retrospect, though, it’s like the old chestnut about how targeted R&D against polio would have produced the lightest, most comfortable iron lung anyone  might imagine.

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