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  • The Victorian Walkman
  • Matthew Rubery (bio)

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From “La fin des livres” (Uzanne and Robida).

By permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Why bother reading a novel to yourself when you could have one read to you? This was the question facing readers after Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph made it possible to listen to the recorded voice for the first time in history. Edison’s list of potential uses for the device included playing “phonographic books” for those who were either unable or unwilling to read print for themselves (“The Phonograph and Its Future” 534). The idea was an attractive one for audiences who to this point could only dream about hearing a tale away from the presence of a live storyteller. The printed book had proven itself over several centuries to be the most convenient way of reading. Now readers began to ask whether books might be made even more convenient.

It was not long before engineers, utopianists, and novelists began to speculate about the possibility of mobile phonograph technology, or what [End Page 9] we might playfully call the Victorian Walkman—a tiny portable phonograph that enabled people to listen to the spoken word while on the move. Such speculations predicted with impressive foresight three key features of the portable listening devices to come in the next century: mechanization, miniaturization, and mobilization. Portable phonographs fulfilled a desire not just to hear books read aloud whenever people liked but also to hear them read aloud wherever people liked, whether at home, on a train, or even, as we will see, on top of a mountain. The intersection of sound-recording technology and the book raised profound questions about the place of reading (both literally and figuratively) in a changing media ecology.

The era of recorded sound began with the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” played on a tinfoil phonograph in December 1877. The prototype consisted of a grooved metal cylinder with a sheet of tinfoil wrapped around it to capture the vibrations created by speaking into the phonograph’s mouthpiece. The result was a tinfoil record capable of playing back the human voice to the wonderment of audiences who had never before heard speech mechanically reproduced. Edison improved the design in 1888 by replacing the flimsy tinfoil slip with a more robust wax cylinder. This was the model used to record the voices of eminent Victorians, including Sarah Bernhardt, Robert Browning, William Gladstone, Henry Irving, Florence Nightingale, Arthur Sullivan, and Alfred Tennyson. After decades of alleged neglect of aurality, Victorianists have turned their attention to such instances of the recorded voice with the fervour of a disc jockey rummaging through a crate of vintage LPs.1

The phonograph’s debut left the public in the curious position of figuring out what to do with it. Edison preferred to market the phonograph as a device for taking dictation in business settings. Yet the uses of new media are determined as much by their social contexts as by the dictates of their inventors, and the public had in mind more imaginative tasks for it. Cartoons in Fun and Moonshine proposed using the phonograph to deliver parliamentary speeches by proxy, to record witness testimony in court, and to scare away burglars with a pre-recorded hue and cry. Such humorous sources suggest that the phonograph’s impact would be felt in personal as well as professional life, by giving women the means to catch philandering husbands in the act, to incriminate breachers of matrimonial promises, and to abet bashful lovers in speaking the amorous words they were too shy to recite in person—at the risk of falling into the wrong hands with farcical consequences (“Some Uncontemplated Possibilities” 42; “The Phonograph” 168). Of course, music was the most obvious use for the phonograph (Katz 56–79), but while the phonograph’s role as a music machine has been thoroughly documented, little attention has been given to its use as a reading machine.

Audiences recognized immediately how easy it would be to listen to books read aloud on the phonograph. The most optimistic predictions were of a future in...