“It ought to be possible, I thought, to record human speech. Theoretically, it should be possible to record whole books.”
Captain Ian Fraser, Blind Veteran and Chairman of Blind Veterans UK 1921-1974.
The latest object in the Blind Veterans UK 100 objects centenary campaign is the talking book. The initial concept and then later the talking books themselves were dreamt up by Captain Ian Fraser at a Blind Veterans UK early rehabilitation centre.
Many soldiers who returned home blind from the First World War had given up hope of ever reading again. While the literacy of blind people had always been a concern, particularly among religious leaders who feared for their interaction with the bible, it had been tolerated to an extent. RNIB and Blind Veterans UK brought an urgency to the issue. War-blind soldiers who could not read Braille were now experiencing a new found illiteracy; a very isolating experience.
Advert from Blind Veterans UK Review
Fundraising images such as these from the Blind Veterans UK Review brought realisation to the British public about the debt they owed to disabled ex-Service men and women who had fought and served in the First World War.
Captain Ian Fraser
Ian Fraser began receiving support from Blind Veterans UK after being shot through the eyes by a German sniper at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. After the death of founder Authur Pearson in 1921, Fraser took over as chairman which he held for 52 years. While listening to a gramophone, Fraser considered whether speech could be recorded the same way. He began experimenting by recording scraps of poetry and speeches in a makeshift studio on the grounds.
Captain Ian Fraser at Blind Veterans UK rehabilitation centre
The Sound Recording Committee
The RNIB established a Sound Recording Committee in 1934 and Anthony McDonald recorded the first ever talking book in a rudimentary studio in Regent’s Park. The Talking Book library began a two year trial in 1935 and membership was free for anyone who owned a talking book player. These ranged in price between £3.15s and £6.10s, however Blind Veterans UK subsidised these machines by £1 for any veteran with severe sight loss.
Talking Book Player
The talking book initially comprised of 10 double-sided records and the first recordings available were Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, and The Gospel According to St. John.
While the US Talking Book library received government funding, initially the UK’s did not. Instead it relied on essential donations. By far the most generous benefactor of the programme was philanthropist Lord Nuffield. In a letter of thanks, Fraser wrote to Lord Nuffield “You in turn after Louis Braille, have created a revolution for the blind”.
A new found independence
The talking book was singular in its provision of independence for blind veterans. A major appeal of the talking book was that blind veterans no longer felt they were imposing on friends and family by requesting them to read aloud. One veteran even remarking “talking books are never tired, never argumentative and never in a hurry, bless them.”
Helen Keller considered boredom to be the biggest threat to blindness but with the creation of the Talking Book, recreational opportunities for the blind were now considerably expanded. Providing blind veterans with the ability to enjoy books once again had an unprecedented effect, in particular on the mental health of the newly blind. Whereas previously they may have felt disconnected, talking books engaged blind veterans once more with the world around them.
With thanks to Matthew Rubery for his help in providing information about this object – for more about the history of talking books see Matthew’s article http://www.bookbrunch.co.uk/article_free.asp?pid=from_shell_shock_to_shellac_the_great_war_blindness_and_britains_talking_book_library
To find out how else we support veterans with severe sight loss click here.