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The machines that bring books to life

Making books talk is no easy feat, but RNIB’s efforts would be wasted without the proper machinery to play the resulting recordings.

Image: A woman sat listening to a talking book using a daisy player,

In the early years, Talking Book players were huge, mechanical things, loaded with up to eight gramophone records per novel. That seems archaic next to today’s compact DAISY players, but even those early inventions were years ahead of their time and a lifeline for people who had experienced sight loss.

Machines have been instrumental in bringing books to blind and partially sighted people, while the evolution of our technology has long been at the forefront of audio innovation. Read on to see just how far we’ve come.

1935: Shellac record player

The first Talking Books were sent out alongside machines like this one on 7 November 1935. Popular music wouldn’t find its way onto records for more than a decade, but early Talking Books including Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd were instantly popular with blind people. By 1937, there were already 1,000 machines in circulation.

1947: TB.N.M.

In 1947, following the end of the Second World War, these updated record players were being produced in significant numbers and brought with them a key new feature; mains power. The technology was groundbreaking, and – after consulting with RNIB – record companies Decca and EMI would use it to release their first LPs a year later.

1956: TB12 Semi-automatic

Record players were well established by the mid-1950s, but we weren’t done innovating yet. The TB12 Semi-Automatic featured a then cutting-edge mechanism that saw the needle automatically placed at the start of the LP when the lid was closed. Reading Talking Books was now easier than ever.

1960: Mark 1 Tape player

Talking Book LPs were great to listen to, but fragile and inflexible. In the 1960s we moved to tape, a more adaptable format that would come to define our Talking Books service for more than four decades. Early tapes weren’t like the compact cassettes we’re used to now, though. They were so bulky the Post Office required a separate service to deliver them.

1966: Mark IV Cassette Player

Thankfully, cassettes soon shrunk down, and by 1966 the Mark IV cassette player was launched which would transform our service forever. During this time our membership grew from under 10,000 members to well over 40,000, offering many blind people’s first experience of Talking Books.

1996: TB2000

The magnificent Mark IV cassette player lasted a good 30 years, but by the mid-90s it was time for another change. Although much of the same technology remained in the TB2000, its design was given a much-needed update. Meanwhile, our library would boast 12,000 titles by the year 2000.

2002: Victor Reader DAISY players

Our transition from analogue books on cassette tapes to digital DAISY CDs was a huge technological leap forward. The DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) format offers enhanced navigability and gives members the best reading experience yet. DAISY CDs can hold large amounts of information. Around 25 hours of audio can fit on one DAISY CD.

Victor Reader DAISY hardware devices allowed ergonomics to come to the fore in design and accessibility. The DAISY players have large tactile control buttons. The players allow readers to easily save their place in a book and to speed up or slow down the playback and adjust the tone of the voice.

2004: Plextalk

The Plextalk PTN and Plextalk Pocket are rolled out, offering greater choice in DAISY players. The Pocket is a lightweight, portable player.

2014: Sonic and Sovereign memory stick players

Talking Books are offered on USB stick and immediately bring an increase in new customers joining the RNIB Talking Book Library. Sonic and Sovereign memory stick players are available from the RNIB Shop. The Sonic is lightweight and portable and has large yellow control buttons. The Sovereign has large yellow control buttons and tactile markings.

RNIB Overdrive is launched and customers can download Talking Books in MP3 format to a smartphone or tablet of their choice.

2020: RNIB Reading Services

Overdrive is replaced by RNIB Reading Services in 2020 and for the first time RNIB Talking Books can be downloaded in DAISY format to a smartphone or tablet.

2021: Alexa-enabled devices

RNIB Talking Books are also available through Alexa-enabled devices, such as Amazon smart speakers, using an Alexa skill.