Making Books Talk for the Blind

  • Prosperity
  • 1932

For most of history, the enormous repository of human knowledge represented by books was out of reach for the blind. Only a small percentage of persons with vision loss have ever mastered braille. So when it came to accessing literature, history, practical information, and everything else contained between hard covers, the blind were, literally, in the dark.

In 1932 two donors—the Carnegie Corporation, and Ada Moore, a generous patron of libraries and art—gave $15,000 to the American Foundation for the Blind to fund a crash program to bring books to the sightless in a practical audio form. Both donors followed up with additional grants, totaling $20,000 from each of them. With these funds the AFB went to work to see if a brand-new patent for what was being called a “long-playing record,” or LP, might work. LPs were much larger and slower-spinning than the 78-rpm records that existed then, and thus played more than four times as long on each side, making them practical for extended readings from books.

The foundation experimented with making discs out of various materials, seeking one durable enough to stand up to shipping from house to house among blind subscribers. It eventually settled on vinyl. The AFB also had to build players for the records, creating one that was electric and one that was hand-cranked, and struggled to make them cheap enough for mass purchase. This philanthropic product-development effort succeeded, and in 1934 “Talking Books” began to be shipped around the country, bringing literature to blind Americans everywhere, leaving them wide-eyed with wonder.

The LP record funded by Carnegie and Moore was enjoyed exclusively by the blind for the first 14 years of its existence, until CBS turned it into a popular medium for playing music among the general public in 1948. And while convalescing from a heart attack in 1955, President Eisenhower, not blind but bedridden, asked to use Talking Books and a Talking-Book machine. Audiobooks for the general public took a step forward. Thus did a charitable product for the sightless gradually become a big part of American pop culture.

Carnegie, meanwhile, developed a wider interest in bringing information to the blind. It made subsequent grants to develop a braille typewriter, new flexible records, and bibliographies of available recorded books. It also funded research on how to use Talking Books to educate blind children.