After years of studying the latest sound technology, Turner (1859–1927) not only designed the Metrophone, but he also built his own telephone systems, which were primarily installed in Britain. Though his telephones were very successful, Turner is more known for his 1907 invention and patent of the dictograph, a listening device that amplified sound from relatively far distances or spaces separated by walls. The dictograph was composed more or less of three pieces: a transmitter with the Metrophone as its centerpiece, an earpiece, and a dry battery cell.
Unlike Hutchison’s hearing aid, Turner’s dictograph enabled people to hear more clearly for reasons other than social communication. The dictograph made communications clearer in order to help solve crimes.
A New Way to EavesdropThe year of his patent, Turner produced the Portable Detective Dictograph Audio Amplifier, which became all the rage for police and private detective. These “eavesdropping” devices changed the investigative landscape, and eventually the legal landscape. The device cost $125, which was equivalent to about two months' pay on an average working-man’s salary. Few would be sold outright, but that was no problem for Turner. He rented out the dictograph for $6 per month. By the time he created the “Detective Dictograph” in 1910, he had garnered the attention of state and federal investigators.
In May 1911, the sergeant-at-arms for the Ohio state legislature was caught for bribery thanks to the dictograph that had been installed under a couch and an investigator listening in the adjoining room. During the same year, the mayor of Gary, Indiana, Thomas Knotts, was caught taking a $5,000 bribe. The following year, the dictograph was used in collecting evidence of bribery against five Atlantic City council members. Most prominently, however, the dictograph was used by William J. Burns, arguably the greatest and most controversial detective of his day, during the McNamara-Los Angeles Times Bombing investigation, known then as “the crime of the century.”
The Dictograph in ActionIn the early morning hours of Oct. 1, 1910, the Los Angeles Times building was bombed, killing 21 people and injuring 100 others. The investigation soon turned toward two brothers: John J. and James B. McNamara. The brothers were represented by the legendary attorney Clarence Darrow.
Burns had ascertained a confession from Ortie McManigal, a union worker who was a specialist in explosives and had, along with J.B. McNamara, conducted a number of bombings of iron works throughout the country at the direction of J.J. McNamara. McManigal, however, had not been involved with the Los Angeles Times bombing, but his confession and ultimate confirmation of the McNamaras’ involvement proved pivotal.
As part of their investigative technique, Burns and the case’s prosecution team secretly installed the dictograph in the Los Angeles County Jail, which overheard and confirmed all the prosecution knew and needed to know. George Behm, McManigal’s uncle, had been convinced by Darrow to encourage McManigal to deny his confession. McManigal refused to deny the confession. When Behm took the stand before the grand jury, he was astonished by what the prosecution knew. “They asked about things I said to Ortie that I never spoke before in my life. I said them in that room and no where else,” Behm admitted.
The McNamara brothers eventually pled guilty.
Constitutional IssuesThe use of the dictograph and future eavesdropping and wiretapping methods were consistently brought before the courts as violations of one’s right to privacy. In one of the most important cases held before the Supreme Court in Olmstead vs United States, it was voted 5-to-4 that wiretapping without a warrant was not an invasion of privacy and therefore did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Chief Justice William Howard Taft wrote the majority opinion by abiding directly by the letter of the amendment rather than the spirit of it, stating “The Amendment does not forbid what was done here. There was no searching. There was no seizure. The evidence was secured by the use of the sense of hearing, and that only. There was no entry of the houses or offices of the defendants.”
Justice Louis Brandeis dissented, stating “The evil incident to invasion of the privacy of the telephone is far greater than that involved in tampering with the mails. Whenever a telephone line is tapped, the privacy of the persons at both ends of the line is invaded and all conversations between them upon any subject, and, although proper, confidential and privileged, may be overheard. Moreover, the tapping of one man’s telephone line involves the tapping of the telephone of every other person whom he may call or who may call him. As a means of espionage, writs of assistance and general warrants are but puny instruments of tyranny and oppression when compared with wiretapping.”
With the advance of technology and the desire to catch criminals and administer justice, Turner’s invention played a massive role. Unfortunately, it took several decades for the legal system to acknowledge and address its ramifications.