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  • Katie Aitken

Voice Over Origins : Audiobooks

The intention of audiobooks was not always what it is today. Judging by the growing popularity of audiobooks these days, it seems that they have helped to reignite an interest in stories. Considering that the telling of stories must be one of the oldest forms of entertainment, it is interesting to think about how changes in technology and culture have resulted in our flip-flopping between the most popular mediums of consuming them. To massively condense history, if you think that stories were originally oral traditions, told out loud - then stories were printed and made into books. And now, audiobooks are becoming the increasingly chosen medium by audiences, suggesting a return to the enjoyment of hearing stories aloud.


PHOTO : Findaway Voices

If there is an obvious pattern to be drawn from my research into voice over origins across the industries, it is that the first use of voice over never heralded its mainstream emergence. In fact, there are usually several decades between the actual origin story and the commonly accepted first mainstream usage. So, not wishing to break with tradition, audiobooks are no different.


While the 1930s and 1950s are key periods that you may have seen associated with audiobook firsts, we are going to rewind a little further back than that, to the 1870s. Once again, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the first name to mention in association with the advent of at least the idea of audiobooks is Thomas Edison. With his invention of the phonograph, Edison had numerous plans for what was possible, including ‘phonographic books’.


Edison with a phonograph

After sampling with the phonograph himself, recording ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’, he later demonstrated his invention at the Royal Institution in 1878. The demonstration included recordings of ‘Hey Diddle Diddle, The Cat And The Fiddle’ and a line of poetry by Tennyson. Granted, this wasn’t exactly an audiobook - but it certainly defines the dawn of an important technology and the foresight of applying it to literature as a form of audible entertainment.


In fact, Matt Rubery, an Edison Fellow at the British Library, further suggests Edison’s vision for audiobooks. He explains that Edison proposed using the phonograph to record Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens, which would have been the first ever audiobook. However, as you may remember from the Voice Over Origins : Toys article, recording on wax cylinders was not ideal for numerous reasons (not least because it sounded terrifying!) In terms of recording a full length novel, the issue was more to do with the length, given that each cylinder could only play a few minutes of spoken word at a time. So the book was never recorded.


The first speaking picture book

At the same time in Sonneberg, Germany - the toy making capital of the world at the time, the focus was on applying synthesised voices to similar mediums. In 1878, a bookseller in Sonneberg called Theodor Brand received a patent for his “speaking picture book”. The book had images of different animals and had a corresponding knob which activated the synthesised voice of the animal. The ‘audiobook’ was published in multiple languages and was a worldwide commercial hit.


Fast-foward half a century later and we find the first full length novels being recorded in the 1930s. In 1931, The American Foundation For The Blind and the Library of Congress Book for the Blind Project established the Talking Book Program, creating recordings of books on a set of vinyl gramophone records. As the name of the group suggests, these audiobooks were intended for people with visual disabilities which included those born blind or with degenerative sight problems as well as the added number of soldiers returning from the First World War who had damaged or lost their sight during their service. Up to 25 minutes of speech could be recorded using long playing records that rotated at a much slower speed than more traditional records. This meant that the average novel required 10 records to cover the full recording.


Blind students listen to a "talking book" at Lighthouse in New York. (PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

The first audiobooks were posted in America in 1934 and included The Bible and patriotic documents such as the Declaration of Independence, as well as fictional works such as ‘Very Good Jeeves’ by P.G.Wodehouse, ‘The Brushwood Boy’ by Rudyard Kipling and ‘The Diary Of A Provincial Lady’ by E.M.Delafield. The first audiobooks in Britain went out one year later in 1935, beginning with ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ by Agatha Christie and ‘Typhoon’ by Joseph Conrad.


Dylan Thomas

The 1950s is the last instalment of important dates for audiobooks first. In 1952, Caedmon Records was formed, known as the first company to sell spoken word records to the public and therefore pioneering audiobooks as an industry. The first release was by Dylan Thomas reading out a collection of his poems. On the B-side is also a story read by Dylan Thomas called ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ which is now one of his most beloved works. It was this that is credited as having launched Caedmon Records to success.


Being good at reading out loud is pretty essential to be a voice over artist (no sh*t Sherlock). And for many voice talent, specialising in audiobook narration has provided an income. Personally, I find it fascinating to know that whether you have gone down the path of narrator or have pursued a voice career in the direction of video game character actor, anime voice dubber or in the field of commercial voice over, the names (Thomas Edison), inventions (phonograph) and even key locations (Sonneberg) have been repeated time and time again. For many of us, voice over is more than just a job - it’s a genuine passion and a joy to do. I hope that knowing some of these titbits about its history will fan that flame and serve as a reminder to be grateful for the possibilities that we have been able to make realities.