History of The Audio Book

The Definitive History of The Audio Book1

The earliest known ancestor of the contemporary Audio Book was the Phonographic Book,2 invented by Julius Caesar in c. 54 BC. It employed a clay cylinder covered with wax. While wildly popular with the Roman public, sound quality tended to degrade as the wax softened in the summer (since air conditioning was not widely available in ancient Rome), and the cylinders were very heavy and difficult to transport. Caesar’s personal recording of War and Peace, about sixty-one hours and eight minutes long, required 917 four-minute cylinders, and weighed more than a ton.3

A successor to the Phonographic Book was the Book on Tape,4 which was produced by the Scotch® Company from 1919 until 1977. Employees would take a young and impressionable roll of tape and read a book to it over and over again until the roll of tape could recite the book from memory.5 While the Book on Tape had a definite advantage in portability, it tended to become tangled. It also had a tendency, as it aged, to demand whisky before reading.

After Scotch® discontinued the Book on Tape, the Audio Book proper was introduced by Alexander Gore. Gore’s idea was to separate the concept of an audible book from any particular medium. This allowed him to generate royalties from the sale of Audio Book CDs, Audio Book MP3 files, Audio Book vinyl disks, and Audio Book electric blankets.6

What’s next for the Audio Book? No more change in the name seems possible, but, as technology improves, the newest form of audio book will likely be the direct implantation of the Audio Book in some otherwise unused body part, such as the cerebral cortex or the vermiform appendix.

“Booths Caesar,” unknown author – The Life and Times of Joseph Haworth; original in the McClellan Collection at Brown University. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. ‘Audio Book’ literally translates as ‘I Hear Book’.
  2. ‘Phonographic Book’ literally translates as ‘Voice-Letter Book’.
  3. Matthew Rubery, ed., Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies (London: Routledge, 2001), 1–21.
  4. ‘Book on Tape’ literally translates as ‘Book on Tape’.
  5. This practice was discontinued in 1977, after the Supreme Court decided that it constituted child labor in Scotch® Company v. John Roll of Adhesive Tape.
  6. Gore’s attempts to collect from Julius Caesar were, however, entirely fruitless: Caesar succesfully argued that the wax cylinder was a natural product of the Egyptian Caesalpinioida audiophonica, and thus not subject to copywrite.

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