Skip navigation


Edison and phonograph

How audiobooks began

9 October 2019

Continuing the 2019 Libraries Week theme on the role of libraries in the digital world, let us begin with a quick look at a novel about the early days of the music recording industry in late Victorian London. It may seem like I'm going off on a tangent but bear with me...

The Industry of Human Happiness by James Hall (13121) is by turns a fascinating look at a period of history when inventors and businessmen were desperate to come up with a means of bringing recorded music to the masses (and thereby making a fortune), as well as a great whodunit. The story revolves around cousins Mat and Rusty who work out of a Covent Garden basement. Their ambitions are thwarted when an opera singer is murdered, and by a contested legacy which divides the cousins who subsequently become fierce rivals, each launching his own talking machine.

And this talking machine leads us to... the first audiobooks! Which would not have been developed without the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877. And without it this now hugely popular digital addition to libraries worldwide - in particular Calibre Audio Library - would not have been possible. Even so, it took almost sixty years until enough storage was developed to accommodate a complete book when Long Playing records (LPs) were brought into production. It still took around 10 LPs to hold an average-sized audiobook such as Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the first audiobook to be sent out to visually impaired war veterans and civilians in the UK back in 1935.

You can read more about the history of audiobooks in a guest post by Matt Rubery on the English and Drama blog on the British Library website. Or you can listen to The Untold Story of the Talking Book (11989), also by Matthew Rubery, which is available from the Calibre Library.