The First Records Weren’t Designed For Music

Vinyl record player on wooden background
“Music, or any art form […] has to strike the right balance between simplicity and complexity.” —Daniel Levitin, “This Is Your Brain On Music”

In A Nutshell

Early record technology was far from good, and it certainly wasn’t good enough to faithfully reproduce music in a way that an artist would be proud of. It was good enough, though, for the spoken word, and the end of World War I meant there was a major increase in blind or visually impaired people. The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) started a program to use new recording technology for the creation of audiobooks. In spite of initial opposition from Helen Keller, the AFB ended up getting the funds needed to get audiobooks into the hands of those who needed them. The AFB also partnered with the Library of Congress to further develop recording technology with Keller’s support.

The Whole Bushel

There are still some people who swear by the quality of a good vinyl record. There’s just something about the sound that can’t be duplicated with the best of today’s modern technology, they say. While vinyl records and LPs are typically linked to music—especially music of a certain era—they weren’t originally designed for music.

The first LPs served a very specific purpose: They were marketed as audiobooks for the blind. Early record technology was pretty bad at reproducing the sound of music in any kind of accurate way, and record companies knew that no one wanted to listen to what amounted to a bad reproduction of music. There was also the problem of space. Original records could only hold about five minutes of music.

They were, however, great for recording the sound of a person speaking. In 1932, the first real record technology was licensed by the American Foundation for the Blind, with some lofty goals. Frank L. Dyer, the creator of the technology, was 100 percent behind the project, and granted the foundation use of it royalty-free.

At the end of World War I, there was a major increase in the number of people who would benefit from audiobooks. Wounded veterans were returning to the US, and many were newly blind and had difficulty holding traditional books. The audience for audiobooks was huge.

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Even though the foundation had licensed the technology in 1932, it was a few years before the Talking Books program got off the ground. In the beginning, they had one of the most unlikely opponents—Helen Keller. When the program was in its first funding stages, Keller spoke out about the waste that she felt the project was. When there were people starving, she wrote to a friend, there was no sense in spending money on audiobooks for the blind. The basics (food, shelter, and clothing) that people were doing without should take precedence over this project.

No one’s really sure why she changed her mind, but in 1935, she contacted the American Foundation for the Blind and gave her support to the project. She promised to support the recording of audiobooks (and the development of technology that would ultimately lead to vinyl records), and she solicited donations on behalf of the program. Her support eventually got the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in 1935, he hired the Talking Books Program into the Library of Congress, giving them official government money to run the project.

By the end of World War II, the need for audiobooks was even greater, so great that the Library of Congress held a conference to help figure out how to improve the technology. And improve it did, to the point where recording technology really started to take off. By 1948, sound and recording quality had improved to the point where they could be used for music, and the recording industry never looked back.

Show Me The Proof

Pacific Standard: The First Audiobook: an LP for the Blind
American Foundation for the Blind: Early History; Helen’s Initial Opposition; A Change of Mind; Recording Technology Moves On