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OVERVIEW : Voice Over Origins


Katie Aitken

Over the past couple of months, my exploration of the first use of voice overs across different industries has been a fascinating little research project! And although my humble wee blog doesn’t exactly rake in the readers - I hope that for those of you who have read any of the articles have found them interesting and informative. Here, we will look at the overview of all the best tit-bits gleaned from this series in the history of voice over.


Animation

The first industry covered in the series was animation - commonly thought to be where voice over first began. Credit often wrongly goes to Walt Disney for the production ‘Steamboat Willie’. It is true that the world’s first introduction to Mickey Mouse in ‘Steamboat Willie’ appears to have been the first animation with voice over and sound sychronisation to “attract favourable attention”. As a result of such success, it had a knock-on effect to the rest of the industry.


However, the real credit for the first use of voice over in animation should rightfully go to Max Fleischer for his cartoon ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ released in 1926.


Disney’s immediate commercial success for his use of voice over in a cartoon, subsequently leading to it being remembered as being the first, is partly due to the leaps that happened within those few years. Leaps in technology, sure. But more relevantly, the leaps in opinions held by Hollywood bigwigs. In the mid 1920’s, when Fleischer’s cartoons came out, Hollywood regarded ‘talking pictures’ as a short-term fad. However, their perception was changed in just a few short years so by the time ‘Steamboat Willie’ came out in the late 1920’s, Hollywood was ready to embrace sound and spoken word to image.


Radio

If you knew that animation was not the first industry to use voice over, perhaps you were slightly closer to the truth in thinking that it was Reignald Fessenden on the radio. Although this was also not the first use of voice over either.


Reginald Fessenden

The history of the first voice on radio is pretty universally agreed upon. The credit for the first voice over used in radio goes to Reginald Fessenden in 1900 (with a brief but intelligible voice message transmitted from one station to another about 1 mile away) and more famously in 1906 (with his full length radio show featuring music and voice).


A special mention should also go to the first female voice on the radio. After the First World War, when the ban on radio station transmissions was lifted in 1919, popular vocalist, Vaughn de Leath, did a series of live broadcasts. Consequently, she became known as “the original radio girl”.


Toys

Now we get to the real first use of voice over! And the first time Thomas Edison was mentioned in this series - without whom, we never would have had the phonograph and consequently, all the subsequent technology that has allowed for voice over.


The first toys to use voice over were dolls. The first doll attributed with the power of speech (albeit sythesised) was created by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel in 1824 and was capable of saying “Papa” and “Maman”. However, the first speaking doll that used real voice over was created by Thomas Edison in 1890. The voices used were probably women who worked in his factory although one name is definitely known - that of Julia Miller, the daughter of one of Edison’s factory workers.


Not only the first toy to use voice over, but the very first use of voice over ever should be associated with Thomas Edison. However, it was interesting to find out that while the idea and principles worked, the actual product was poorly received. The dolls were heavy, fragile and sounded fairly terrifying. So much so that even Edison referred to them as “little monsters”.


Video Games

My research into the history of voice over in video games presented the idea of the difference between ‘voice over’ and ‘voice acting’.


Castle Wolfenstein, 1981

The first voice over that appeared in a video game was that of Silas Warner in ‘Castle Wolfenstein’ in 1981. Warner provided the voice over for the word “Achtung!” that gets used in the game but was also the games creator and designer.


An important technological advancement came in 1988 - the release of the Sega Genesis, the first console to use CDs. This technology meant that there was enough space to hold all the information that dialogue requires. Sierra bought out many classic games in the early 1990s that used voice over and led the way for many other major companies in the industry, using the voices of the programmers and designers, etc.


However, the first video game company to recognise the importance of actual voice actors was Lucas Arts. Their first game to use real voice over artists was 'Loom' in 1990.


Audiobooks

Yet another industry that has a variety of different dates and company names credited as being ‘firsts’. If you’re interested to know where and when the intention of using voice over in audiobooks first started, we can thank Thomas Edison again. In 1878, he demonstrated the uses of his phonograph and the possibility of applying it to literature as a form of audible entertainment, by recording a line of Tennyson’s poetry.


Blind students listening to a 'talking book'

The first full length recorded books got started in 1931 with The Talking Book Program by The American Foundation For The Blind. These were sent out to people in America and Britain who were blind or had visual impairment. Given what was going on in the world at that time, a huge number of their subscribers included soldiers returning home from World War I who had damaged or lost their sight during their service.


In terms of the first audiobook produced for release to the mass market, that credit goes to Dylan Thomas reading a collection of his poems for Caedmon Records in 1952.


Voice Assistants

Ending on the most modern industry to utilise voice over. This idea of smart speakers and its history is all tied up in the development of voice recognition. Voice recognition and activation can be traced all the way back to 1922 (applied to a toy). Its application to some variations of ‘smart’ products continued to show development in each decade, starting in 1952.


The original voices of Siri

However, the first use of voice over in virtual assistant products was Siri! Siri was released by Siri Inc in 2010. The original recordings used American, British and Australian accents. The voice over artists who first provided the respective voices of Siri were Susan Bennett, Jon Briggs and Karen Jacobsen.


So here concludes the Voice Over Origins series! Unless of course I suddenly get an influx of message from fans of the series with suggestions of other industries - and then who knows? Maybe there will be series 2...

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