The first audiobooks were invented for blind Americans in the 1930s

Illustration for article titled The first audiobooks were invented for blind Americans in the 1930s

Long before they were used for music, long playing records (LPs) were used almost exclusively for audiobooks. These audiobooks were distributed to blind Americans in the 1930s and 40s. And in fact, it was effectively illegal for sighted persons to listen to LP audiobooks from 1934 until 1948, due to licensing agreements with publishers and authors' unions.


Futurist predictions for audiobooks date back to at least the late 19th century. But audiobooks didn't really take off until the invention of the long playing record in the 1920s. Records that could only hold 3-5 minutes of music were by far the mainstream norm well into the 1940s. The LP's sound quality was so bad back in the 1930s that music sounded terrible on it. The medium simply didn't yet have the dynamic range to play music that sounded any good.

What LPs could handle just fine was the spoken word, leading the federal government (through the Library of Congress and the WPA) and the National Federation for the Blind to use the technology to give blind Americans greater access to books.

From an article I wrote in Pacific Standard last year:

Between 1935 and 1942 the Talking Book project produced about 23,000 record players at a cost of approximately $1.2 million, employing around 200 people in its factory. Almost half of the employees were visually handicapped themselves. Though funding from the WPA dried up in 1942, the program continued until 1951, when the Foundation stopped producing its own record players because they were now readily available to the general public and there was no longer a de facto ban on sighted persons buying the equipment. Though the Foundation no longer produced players, the Library of Congress's National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) continued to make materials accessible through a variety of media—eventually migrating to tape cassettes, CD, and today's digital technologies.

You can read more at Pacific Standard and the fantastic book The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States by Frances Koestler.


Image: Blind airman listening to a "talking book" in 1944 via Library of Congress

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John Verco

Does anyone know where I can find a copy of the rare VHS version of "Top Gun" for blind people? I once borrowed it from the New York Public Library fifteen years ago. It had a cool, military-sounding guy narrating all of the action in the movie.

Top Gun is so much better with narration of the action scenes.