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The History of the Audio Book
Who invented the audio book? - A brief history of talking books.

For most of us, audio books seem to have always been around. But have you ever stopped and thought about how, why and who invented them? There was a time when the audio book simply didn’t exist! Here’s a brief history of the audio book with some trivia thrown in for good measure.

The Beginning and early years

The idea of the audio book, or talking book, first originated in the Uk when the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) tested different ways to produce "talking books" in the 1920s and was investigating the use of the long-play record as a viable means of producing the spoken-word novel, but it was in America during the 1930s with a project called "Books for the Adult Blind Project" in which the first talking book appeared in 1934 which included excerpts from Helen Keller, O. Henry and The Bible.

In the Uk, on 7th November 1935, the RNIB delivered the first talking books to blind and partially sighted people. Their first recordings were Agatha Christie’s “The murder of Roger Ackroyd” and “Typhoon” by Joseph Conrad, and were recorded on LP records which were 25 minutes per side – most of the books would take up 10 or so discs each and would be played on a gramophone.

In the 1940s the recording studio and production that the RNIB used was destroyed in a wartime bombing raid, and a temporary one set up – however this was also bombed a few months later, but thanks to their American counterparts, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) who sent a shipment of gramophone needles, they managed to continue production. (The shipment was also destroyed by enemy bombs in the docks in England, but the AFB kindly sent another which made it safely all the way!)

1960s Gramophone
1960s Gramophone playing an early talking book

From Gramophone discs to tape

In 1949 the magnetic tape was seen as a viable replacement for the gramophone discs, and in 1960 a new ‘talking book player’ was introduced, and in the Uk, the RNIB started distributing it’s spoken word books on tape. The open reel tapes had to be loaded and threaded manually, and was somewhat tricky for blind people! They were also heavy and bulky, so had to be delivered seperate from the rest of the post, and taken back to the post office by hand.

First generation talking book tape player
First generation Talking book tape player

A real breakthrough occurred in 1969 in The States, when National Library Service for the Blind and physically handicapped developed talking books on audiocassette tape. These could be easily produced and were lightweight, compact and much easier to use. Very quickly audiocassette became the media of choice for talking books, and remained that way until the invention of the compact disc at the beginning of the 80s. Public libraries in both USA and UK started filling their shelves with talking books, as publishers started releasing the spoken word versions of their books alongside the hardback edition.

From CD to Download

Audio books on compact disc became more and more popular as the 90s rolled on, with tens of thousands of recordings - nearly every best seller written has been recorded. Unabridged books would still take many CDs, hence why most recorded books are abridged.

Compact Discs

The advent of the Internet changed, like so many things, the nature of the way people listened to not just music, but also the audio book. Downloads have made it much easier to listen to audio books resulting in a growing demand for high quality material, and, audio books read word-for-word in their original unabridged format. Now it is possible, with a handful of mouse clicks, to be listening to your favourite actor reading classic literature that you may have otherwise overlooked. Downloading audiobooks is becoming increasingly popular with people of all ages, and it's certainly been helped by low price mp3 players that can hold many books at the same time - a far cry from the days of the heavy & clunky tape machines or gramophones!

So what is the future for audio books?

Who knows, maybe they’ll be beamed directly to the brain, but it’s likely to be a long time before any ground-breaking innovation will change audio book download services! Here at Silksoundbooks we certainly aim to be at the forefront of the next generation of downloadable audiobooks so you can continue to enjoy wonderful performances from truely great award-winning actors and actresses.