The Voice-O-Graph

1930'sI guess we all kinda
take it for granted today–

We can take a
picture of ourselves
or others in an instant,

—  and show it off right away.

Yes, there’s nothing
like a dirty selfie
in the shower to make you
appreciate modern technology,
I always say,


The same goes for our voices —a1

All of us have heard our own voices enough
to know exactly what we sound like to others–

—- thanks to the technologies of the
late 20th and early 21st century.

And I imagine some people
send selfies in voice form, too —

What would ya call that
— an oralie ?



— it wasn’t always like that.

The ability to record
your own voice
and play it back on demand,
for instance..

hidaddyAlthough machines had
been recording voices
since the War Between the States,

— the average Joe didn’t have easy
and inexpensive access to having
his voice reproduced until the 1930’s.

The earliest reproducible
voice recording
was made in Paris around 1860:

‘Clair De Lune’instructions
using what inventor
Eduard Scott de Martinville
called the ‘Phonautograph’–

— it made tracings of voice wave-forms
on smoked glass or paper, in order to
perform acoustical studies on the patterns —

and it wasn’t until 17 years later that
anybody even realized that these tracings
the machine made could be played back.

So, for all practical purposes,
this 10 second recording
made by Scott on April 09, 1860,
called “Au Clair De La Lune”,
is the oldest known recorded voice.voice

But this reproduction process
was complicated–
(impossible for many years),

and then requiring all kinds
of specialized equipment,

worse, yet– it yielded very
low quality sound.

Charles Cros has some success
in the 1870’s with his ‘paleophone’–

3The real breakthrough
in reproducing sound,
and of course, voice —
was Thomas Alva Edison’s 1877
invention of the phonograph —
originally using a tin foil cylinder.

A guy named Emile Berliner simplified
the playback process in 1890 by
substituting a flat disc or ‘record’ —
the system people now
associate with the phonograph.

1This system was,
with only minor changes,
used for the majority of voice recording
all over the world,
until the Germans
invented magnetic recording
tape right before World War II,

…..and it wasn’t until after the war
that most folks in the United States
ever even saw a reel to reel tape machine.

The war brought increased demand for voice recording–

People wanted to send their friends
and family messages of news, hope and love—

and writing letters seemed so impersonal and detached —

USOThis pent up demand was filled in several ways —

Sometimes record stores would have a recording booth,
in which professional equipment would be used
to cut a record in a matter of hours…

……. and the records they produced
were sturdy and professional looking.

2But far, the most popular method was to
use a coin operated portable recording set up—

Like Mutoscope’s Voice-O-Graph,
frequently located in arcades, fairgrounds,
and high traffic areas like
train stations and tourist attractions.

These machines had some serious limitations —

They produced records on flimsy laminated cardboard,

which looked rather cheap,

sounded pretty awful,

— and were only good for a couple of plays before they disintegrated.

a1Depending on the model you were using,
you might be enclosed in the semi-quiet of a booth,
or separated from the din of the crowd by only a curtain.

The message length was only about one minute —
and the resultant 6″ record was 78 RPM.

Yet, for popularity,
they were hard to beat.

The great appeal these machines had were that they were inexpensive
(about a quarter during WW II), easy to use,
and just about everywhere at one time—

aaaI remember the USO club
near Great Lakes Naval Station in the 1970’s
still had one in their back room.

The Voice-O-Graph looked much like a phone booth,
and the microphone was disguised as a phone, too,
so people would feel more comfortable using it.

A light would come on to tell you
when it was ready to record,

and another would flash when you had only 10 seconds to ‘wrap it up’.

voiceThen, it would print the record,
play it back for you,
and deposit it in the slot.

Kinda neat-o, huh?

These things were so interesting and fun to use,

a few of them are even still in use today—

Neil Young recorded a new album in 2014,
called “A Letter Home“, in one owned by Jack White,
previously of the White Stripes.

Of course, some ginchey modern technology
has been added for the svoiceake of sound quality,
improved recording media,
and to accommodate more recording time—

But it’s still a very cool idea.

I’m told that if you have 15 bucks,
you can go to White’s
“Third Man Record Store” in Nashville,
and record one for yourself.

your own ‘oralie’ recorded
on Jack White’s Voice-O-Graph.

I always wondered what else
there was to do in that town—

……. other than Ernest Tubb’s Record Store,
the Grand Ole Opry,
and Tooties Orchid Lounge.





5 thoughts on “The Voice-O-Graph

  1. Is the imitating the Smoocher Bird?! 😛
    Great post, C…informative, and fun! How wonderful for the soldiers (and others) to hear their loved ones voices while they were far from home!
    HUGS!!! 🙂

  2. mislucja says:

    Oooh la la …. how can I get one of them-there oralies? 😀 😀 😀

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