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I saw a post on the internet today that said, "None of the sci-fi stories I read as a kid predicted a future where everyone was afraid to answer their phone due to constant calls from robots."

This made me laugh, but it got me thinking, with such a large body of sci-fi stories in existence, surely one of them predicted obnoxious, automated "robo-calls" being made for advertising or scamming purposes.

So which was the first sci-fi story to predict such robot automated calls?

Edit: adding Laurel's comment here since I think it is rather relevant:

"The year to beat is 1983, which is when robocalls actually existed. Ideally, we'd find something before 1976/1977, which is when Wikipedia says they were first described in non-fiction"

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  • As currently worded, this qualifies as what we refer to here as a 'list question' -- i.e. a question that seeks an open-ended list of works of a specific type -- and list questions are off-topic here. You could make this on-topic by modifying the wording of the question to ask for the very first example of the type of story you're looking for. If you choose to do that, you should also add the history-of tag to the question. If you don't modify the wording of this question, then it'll likely be closed before too long. Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 5:12
  • For more information on what sort of questions are on and off-topic here, see this page in the help center. Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 5:14
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    I really do want to know the answer to this question, hence I edited it into the "first of" type of question, if the op doesn't approve of that, then maybe i'll post my own question
    – shanu
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 6:10
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    The year to beat is 1983, which is when robocalls actually existed. Ideally, we'd find something before 1976/1977, which is when Wikipedia says they were first described in non-fiction
    – Laurel
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 13:23
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    Is it necessary that the ads be delivered via telephone?
    – Spencer
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 17:47

2 Answers 2

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The Last Letter by Fritz Leiber (published in Galaxy Science Fiction June 1958) has all types of intrusive advertising, including scheduled commercials broadcast via telephone (which the characters find enjoyable rather than obnoxious):

Bells jangled. Krumbine grabbed up two phones, holding one to each ear. Potshelter automatically picked up a third. The ringing continued. Krumbine started to wedge one of his phones under his chin, nodded sharply at Potshelter and then toward a cluster of microphones at the end of the table. Potshelter picked up a fourth phone from behind them. The ringing stopped.

The two men listened, looking doped, Krumbine with an eye fixed on the sweep second hand of the large wall clock. When it had made one revolution, he cradled his phones. Potshelter followed suit.

"I do like the simplicity of the new on-the-hour Puffyloaf phono-commercial," the latter remarked thoughtfully. "The Bread That's Lighter Than Air. Nice."

Krumbine nodded. "I hear they've had to add mass to the leadfoil wrapping to keep the loaves from floating off the shelves. Fact."

He cleared his throat. "Too bad we can't listen to more phono-commercials, but even when there isn't a crisis on the agenda, I find I have to budget my listening time. One minute per hour strikes a reasonable balance between duty and self-indulgence."

Also:

Potshelter nodded absently. "I can remember back before personalized delivery and rhyming robots," he observed. "But how I'd miss them now—so much more distingué than the hives with their non-personalized radio, TV and stereo advertising. For that matter, I believe there are some backward areas on Terra where the great advertising potential of telephones and telegrams hasn't been fully realized and they are still used in part for personal communication. Now me, I've never in my life sent or received a message except on my walky-talky." He patted his breast pocket.

Dystopian advertising is a common theme in futuristic sci-fi, but not a lot of stories use phone calls in particular.

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    Nice! There's a Ballard story where people have to listen to ads to use the phone, and I think the phone can sometimes call them, but this beats it by several years.
    – DavidW
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 23:27
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    Thing that stood out to me - lead foil packaging on food? Did they know how bad an idea that was yet in the 50's? Trying to decide if that's deliberately ironic or just blissfully ignorant for its time period... Commented May 1, 2023 at 15:26
  • Lead poisoning as a major danger from gasoline additives, food containers, paint, glazes, etc., didn't come to widespread attention until 1965, via the work of Clair Patterson, and lead-based paint was only banned in 1978. This was probably not deliberate, but it's hard to say for sure.
    – isaacg
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 17:45
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Captive Audience by Anne Warren Griffith (published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 1953) has essentially every commercial product emitting intrusive advertising, including the telephones:

First had been the telephone company, now one of the fattest accounts on the Corporation’s books. They had held out against MV for years, until he, Fred, hit upon the idea that sold them — a simple message to come from every telephone, at fifteen-minute intervals throughout the MV broadcasting day, reminding people to look in the directory before dialing information.

However, rather than receiving intrusive phone calls, the telephones just emit ads unprompted. Also, lots of people are depicted as enjoying these intrusive advertisements, and "Restraint of advertising" has been declared unconstitutional.

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    Okay, now that's two answers involving stories from the same decade where people receive advertising and like it. Did people in the 50's actually enjoy advertising, and we're all just jaded about it today? Commented May 1, 2023 at 17:45
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    @DarrelHoffman These are extremely satirical dystopian stories - the characters are depicted as basically mind-controlled by the advertising, and the only sane character is sent to jail repeatedly for trying to wear earplugs to block out the advertising. This kind of dystopian satire was very popular in 50s scifi.
    – isaacg
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 17:47
  • today we have companies trying to make ad-blockers illegal Commented May 2, 2023 at 21:16

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