The talking book created new opportunities to transmit the written word to those who could not see. As with embossed print, however, other inventions and systems were tried and discarded along the way.
Thomas Edison foresaw the invention of talking books when he first patented his invention, the phonograph, in 1877. He was speculating on various future uses of his invention and recognized it would make possible “phonograph books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.” It would be another half century before his insight became reality. In the early 1930s advocates at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) experimented with long playing (LP) phonograph record technology.
In 1932, an AFB official wrote to blind Montreal businessman Charles W. Lindsay to say that the Foundation had experiments underway that could lead to using the phonograph record to make "a so-called 'talking book'”. Underlining his words for emphasis, he wrote “this would mean a revolution in the entire situation as to reading matter for the sightless”.
The original AFB talking book system was described as “ten or a dozen two-side 12 inch disks, each less than one-quarter inch thick, (which) would contain a complete book. Nearly every blind person in two or three lessons could learn to operate a phonograph, and then read to his heart's content.” CNIB began to loan out a handful of talking book titles at the beginning of 1935. Ten months later, the collection had grown to 36 titles, with 82 loans.
In the words of a B.C. news report in 1938: “It takes from 20 to 25 minutes for each side of a record and all one does is to sit and listen, just as though a reader, with the most perfect diction, was in the room, and narrating the story in person…There is no charge of any kind for the book. It is one of those comforts which the institute provides for men and women who are handicapped by lack of sight.”
In the 1940s the CNIB worked on developing a satisfactory and cost-effective reading machine with Dominion Electrohome Industries of Kitchener, to enhance access to talking books for Canadian blind readers.
The Readophone system: The AFB’s system was not the only use of phonograph technology to record and reproduce literature for blind readers. The supporters of the Los Angeles-based Readophone claimed that it too was “a revolutionary invention.” Hollywood sound engineer Edward R. Harris developed the Readophone, using wax discs as the medium for the reproduction of books. As with embossed print, there was competition between the formats, with backers of the Readophone advocating strongly for their technology over the talking book machines and recordings that were in development at the AFB at the same time. The different recording technologies used in the two systems meant that neither disc could be used on the other's machines.
The Readophone was ultimately rejected by a technical panel, which corroborated the verdict of officials from organizations representing blind people. The Executive Director of the AFB told CNIB's Director E.A. Baker in 1935, "We received one of the Readophones the other day, but our combined engineering staff have been unable to make the thing play for more than a few minutes at a time on these records...there are a lot of trick features to the Readophone which if not operated properly would be disastrous to the records. I scratched one myself badly and probably I am not more clumsy than the average reader."
The Readophone backers persisted, with a letter to Baker in 1937 relying on some Hollywood razzle dazzle to market their option: "May we suggest that the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Readophone Corporation get together on some sort of a deal which will make the Readophone...the standard machine for Canada's blind. Here in Hollywood, we are particularly well located to obtain the best available talent for making talking books and it would be a very simple matter for us to make whatever you desire, and at a price that I am sure will be satisfactory." Baker declined the offer.
Radio: Radio’s potential to provide information and entertainment to blind listeners was hampered by the expense of early equipment, and the requirement for owners of receivers to have a licence. In 1925 CNIB arranged with many of Canada’s radio manufacturers a discount for blind purchasers of radios, batteries and tubes, with a purchase order issued from the CNIB. The government addressed the licence fee issue in 1927, deciding that blind Canadians could receive free licences “in view of the fact that a large number of persons thus afflicted who derive much comfort from the reception of radio broadcasting are in poor circumstances."
The Optophon: The Optophone, an early effort to provide a sound equivalent for text, was ultimately deemed to be an over-hyped failure. Manufactured in Glasgow, the device was one of the earliest efforts to use sound to convey print content to blind readers. As the device passed over a line of printing, musical tunes or motifs representing the various letters would sound in a telephone receiver. Unlike raised type, such as braille and Moon, which required specially printed books, this sound producing system “renders all ordinary printed works, including type written matter, available to the blind." It made use of variations in the electrical conductivity of the chemical element selenium; the telephone receiver could be made to "sing" various pitches by pulsations of light applied to light-sensitive selenium. A user would learn to recognize letters represented by various combinations of sounds.
In 1920 the manufacturers offered to send CNIB an Optophone for the price of £105, noting that these “instruments” had been supplied to institutions in London, Edinburgh, Paris, and Belgium. The extravagant claims of the manufacturer did not hold up under testing. CNIB Chief Librarian called it “a scientific toy” and concluded that "for the grand majority of blind people, the difficulties involved make the thing entirely useless. The game is scarcely worth the candle."
Looking ahead to sound on tape
Talking book LPs had some drawbacks as library books. The records were heavy and fragile. They often broke during shipping from manufacturer to the library, or the library to reader, or vice versa. But even in the earliest days of talking books, there were rumours of something even better, an offshoot of the film world. A newspaper headline from the period made claims for “a ‘reading machine’ that combines principles of phonograph, talkies."
The article claimed the device “is expected to be more simple of construction and more compact in size than any other talking machine ever devised ….Competent scientific observers hail it as the possible forerunner of a 'reading robot,'…. it speaks out the recordings from rolled strips of an exceedingly thin film substance called cellophane upon which the reading voice has been imposed. "
CNIB Chief Librarian Sherman Swift was pleased to hear about film as a possible solution to the issues of broken talking books. He wrote in 1938 "It is to be hoped the solution will soon be reached, though it will, in a sense put our organizations on the spot for causing so many blind people to invest in phonographic appliances. But of course the disc will still be employed to some extent."