Phonographic Books and the Late Nineteenth-Century Reader

Inspired by his own invention of the phonograph in 1877 Thomas Edison published two essays that entertained the possibility of phonographic libraries and the demise of the book. Outlining his invention's democratising potential Edison asserted:

A book of 40,000 words upon a single metal plate ten inches square thus becomes a strong probability. The advantages of such books over those printed are too readily seen to need mention. Such books would be listened to where now none are read. They would preserve more than the mental emanations of the brain for the author; and, as a bequest to future generations, they would be unequaled. ('Phonograph and Its Future' 534)

Edison had always conceived of the phonograph as a writing machine continuous with other forms of textual inscription and production, including shorthand, telegraphy, and typescript (Gitelman 1-2). Positioning the potential applications of the phonograph as a catalyst for thinking about how people read and communicated, he imagined a paperless future that has become a twenty-first century reality.

Echoing contemporary theories of reading that described the distracted efforts of modern readers, scanning page after page of cumbersome print media, Edison offered listening as the solution. In the next two decades writers from across the globe expanded and reflected upon Edison's vision for the phonograph as a reading machine. The transnational nature of these responses is itself indicative of an unprecedented proliferation of new media technologies that created the illusion of democratised networks of communication and information that traversed national boundaries.

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Published 1 October 2014 in Reading Communities and the Circulation of Print. Subjects: Bellamy, Edward, Reading, Technology, Wells, H.G..

Cite as: Groth, Helen. ‘Phonographic Books and the Late Nineteenth-Century Reader.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 29, no. 3, 2014, doi: 10.20314/als.dfe18da7c4.