THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

18 posts categorized "Literature"

05 September 2019

Sir Isaac Pitman – phonography and the phonograph

Add comment

Isaac Pitman

Sir Isaac Pitman (The Pitman Collection, University of Bath)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

When Isaac Pitman delivered a speech to the Phonographic Association in 1891 one would think it was to an assembled gathering of enthusiasts of Edison’s discovery of sound recording in the form of the newly invented phonograph.  However, Pitman was the inventor of phonography – a system of phonetic shorthand that he developed in 1837 which came to be known as Pitman’s shorthand.  By 1886 he had sold one million copies of his Phonographic Teacher in Britain.  

Book cover 1900

Pitman Shorthand 1900 edition

Indeed, for most of the twentieth century hundreds of thousands of women learnt to read and write shorthand and use a typewriter to gain employment as secretaries. 

Book cover 1970Pitman Shorthand 1970 edition

Isaac Pitman was born in 1813 in Trowbridge, Wiltshire.  In 1835 he became a teacher, married a widow twenty years his senior and opened a small school in Bath.  He married again in 1861 a woman twelve years his junior.  By the age of thirty Pitman, an advocate of spelling reform for the English language, had his own publishing firm and gave up teaching.  His system of shorthand was used worldwide and during the 1840s he originated the idea of correspondence courses due to the uniform postal rate adopted in the United Kingdom at that time.  He set up the Phonetic Institute at Bath – a printing office and publishing house for the dispatch of books to all parts of the world, a business managed by his two sons.

In 1894 Pitman was knighted by Queen Victoria and he died in 1897 at the age of eighty-four.

Although similar names, but completely different scientific paths, it seems that Pitman’s phonography and the phonograph actually were brought together, for by 1891, when he was nearing eighty, Pitman was unable to travel from Bath to London to give his lectures at the National Phonographic Society meetings. 

The London Daily News reported on 20th October 1891 that the Earl of Albemarle would preside over the meeting and that

The speech of Sir Isaac Pitman, who is unable to attend personally, will be delivered by the phonograph, a special messenger having been dispatched by Colonel Gouraud to Bath for the purpose of recording it.

Two days later the Aberdeen Free Press reported that

The two ingenious inventions for mastering the human voice were brought in contact tonight at the annual meeting of the London District of the Phonographic Society.  Mr Isaac Pitman was unable to be present in the flesh, yet his spoken message was entrusted in Bath yesterday to Edison’s phonograph, and was delivered tonight in London to his disciples.  Before the phonograph delivered Mr Pitman’s speech, Colonel Gouraud explained on its behalf that, in order to be heard in the hall, it was not necessary to speak loudly into the instrument, but that one ought rather to pronounce one’s words clearly and deliberately.  Mr Pitman, knowing that his remarks were to be uttered in a large hall, had attempted to raise his voice in proportion, with the result that his speech came in a somewhat vague and husky manner from the phonograph.  Nevertheless, it could be heard by an attentive listener at the back of the building.  The diplomas of the Phonographic Society were afterwards distributed, and there was an exhibition of typewriting, which is becoming a vast industry for young women in the Metropolis.

However, the correspondent of the Coventry Evening Telegraph disagreed about the quality of the recording and thought that

Phonography and the phonograph were in pleasant companionship last night.  The occasion was the first annual meeting of the National Phonographic Society – an association founded to advance a well-known system of shorthand writing, and to test, and attest by diplomas, the efficiency of public teachers of the art.  The venerable founder – Mr Isaac Pitman – was unable to be present, but the speech that he would have delivered was spoken by him at Bath on the previous day, and recorded by one of Edison’s phonographs.  By this means it was reproduced with such clearness that every word was heard by the audience which filled the Memorial Hall, London.

Cylinder box lid

Cylinder box lid

The first cylinder of Pitman’s recorded speech has survived so we can now hear the voice of a man born more than two hundred years ago.  Here is the commencement where he thanks the Earl of Albemarle, a transcript of which is below.

Isaac Pitman opening speech

Isaac Pitman, to the phonographers speaking here tonight.  My Lord Albermarle, Ladies and Gentlemen, phonographers all, I greet you right heartily.  I would be present in person if I could leave my desk with a clear conscience so that, even from a hundred miles from London, I can speak to you without writing thanks to Mr Edison, Colonel Gouraud and his assistance.   And especial thanks are due from the, the disassociation for obtaining thus my invisible presence.

And here is the least worn part of the cylinder where he speaks about phonographers are phonography bringing him into contact with people across the world.

Isaac Pitman closing remarks

Their labours, by extending phonography to all parts of the earth where the English language is spoken have brought me into communication with a great number of people who reside in distant countries extending from California in the West to Japan in the East and Tasmania in the South.

There is a memorial plaque to Pitman in Bath Abbey the inscription of which reads:

Inventor of Pitman’s shorthand.  His aims were steadfast, his mind original, his work prodigious, the achievement worldwide.  His life was ordered in service to God and duty to man.

Bath Abbey - Memorial plaque of Isaac PitmanMemorial Plaque to Sir Issac Pitman, Bath Abbey (By GraceKelly - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

26 August 2019

Recording of the week: Winnie-the-Pooh

Add comment

This week's selection comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Recordings.

This week's recording of the week features A. A. Milne reading from his children's classic Winnie-the-Pooh. This is a short excerpt from the complete chapter three featured on the disc, 'in which Pooh and Piglet go hunting and nearly catch a Woozle'.       

Listen to the voice of A. A. Milne (1CS0089348)                                                                                                     

The recording was made in June 1929 and issued on a 10" disc by the Dominion company, which produced a series of  twelve literary spoken-word discs featuring popular writers around that time. 

Photograph of the Winnie the Pooh disc

A. A. Milne famously based his Winnie-the-Pooh stories on the bedtime stories he told his son, Christopher Robin. Toy animals provided the inspiration for Pooh the bear and his friends, Piglet, Eeeyore, Kanga and Roo. Milne also wrote collections of children's verse, humourous essays, plays and an autobiography.

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

15 February 2019

Andrea Levy

Add comment

We’re sad to hear of the death of novelist Andrea Levy who passed away yesterday, aged 62.

Andrea grew up in north London, the daughter of Jamaican-born Winston and Amy Levy. She attended Highbury Hill Grammar School before studying textile design at Middlesex Polytechnic. After working as a costume assistant at The Royal Opera House and the BBC she began to attend a writers’ class at City Lit and published her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’, in 1994. Today she is best known for the award-winning Small Island and The Long Song.

In 2014, Andrea agreed to make a recording for Authors’ Lives which will be made available to listeners in the weeks to come. She was at that time living with the knowledge that she had a life-limiting illness.

With typical courage and eloquence, she ended her Authors’ Lives recording by reflecting on mortality, and the impact she hoped her books might have had in the world:

‘Everybody dies, and everybody knows they’re going to die. But while other people have it in the back of their heads, I have it here, right in front of my face: I see it and I know it.

But in the meantime I’m fit and well and I’m loving life. There’s a certain freedom that comes from knowing that this is the time you’ve got, and every minute is going to be dedicated to what you want to do because you really don’t have long. If you can go day by day, there’s some sort of release in it.

[Living with cancer] is a process of forgetting and never forgetting that you have to do at one and the same time: I never forget, but I just get on with it. I’ve had a very good life, I’ve loved it. I’ve worked hard and produced some good work I think, and the confidence I have now is because of writing: because I was able to quietly, in my own time and my own way, to show my worth.

I hope my books have a life beyond me. I hope I made a contribution to something, to the end of racism and the coming equality. I hope that the life that I’ve lived goes some way to make things easier. That’s the only posterity.’

Sarah O’Reilly, Interviewer, Authors’ Lives

17 December 2018

Recording of the week: Norman Beaton recalls Liverpool in the 60s

Add comment

Our last Recording of the Week for 2018 comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary & Creative Recordings.

Actor, singer and writer Norman Beaton (1934-1994) recalls his early career steps in Liverpool, and how the production of his first play, the musical Jack of Spades, came about through a chance meeting in the Philharmonic pub.

This is a short excerpt from an interview running for one hour and twenty minutes, which is available to listen to in full at the British Library on request.

The interview was recorded at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London, by the British Library, 22 November 1986, at an event to celebrate the publication of Beaton’s autobiography Beaton But Unbowed

Note: this recording has some technical imperfections.

Norman Beaton (C94/92)

Photograph of Norman Beaton in 1979Norman Beaton in 1979 (image copyright: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo; used under licence)

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news. 

UOSH_Footer with HLF logo

07 September 2018

The MiniDisc revival starts here (maybe)

Add comment

Sony launched the first MiniDisc players and recorders in 1992. MiniDiscs were small (around 2¾" square) floppy-disk-style cartridges with an 80-minute recording capacity, intended to supplant the tape cassette format.

Some major-artist commercial albums were issued as pre-recorded MiniDiscs, and the Library has a few examples of these in its collection. In its heyday, however, at least in the UK,  the MiniDisc arguably found more favour as a recording medium, particularly among broadcasters (and oral historians). The Millennium Memory Bank project, for example, created by BBC local radio stations across England, together with Radio Scotland, Radio Ulster, Radio Wales and Radio Cymru - and held at the British Library - alone comprises more than 6000 MiniDiscs.

Sony ceased production of MiniDisc machines in 2013 so the format may be considered officially obsolete. For Paul Maclean, though, and his fellow H. P. Lovecraft appreciators in the Cthulhu Breakfast Club, who have just released their first 'MiniDisc Exclusive Release', the format is very much alive.

Photo of Paul Maclean's MiniDisc and outer packaging

I asked Paul to say a few words on the attraction of obsolete recording formats:

I've been by training and trade, an archaeologist and museum scientist. I’ve always had a 'backwards-looking curiosity' combined with a love of the technological. In more recent years my work has focused on the web and especially net-based audio such as podcasts - they are a wonderful and practical way to reach people around the world almost instantly - but at the same time I think something is lost by the lack of the physical: the particular, more direct connection between audience and creator that can exist with physical artefacts.

In 2017 I produced a wax cylinder recording of a podcast (through Poppy Records), which proved popular - likely due to the novelty of using some of the latest technology (Ambisonic high resolution digital recording) married to one of the earliest recording formats. The cylinders were manufactured for us by Paul Morris. However a wax cylinder meant a very short show: only 2 minutes!

Our normal shows tend to run over an hour. Having both a love of obsolete audio formats and fond memories of Sony’s short-lived but superbly engineered MiniDisc system, the MiniDisc format seemed a logical next step.

Photo of Paul Maclean's Denon-brand replicating machine

Over the past few years I’ve collected a number of MD players and was also lucky enough to acquire a Denon DN-045R MD replicator (above) which allows me to produce pristine new MD recordings in quantity. The last Sony MiniDisc machine may have left the factory in 2013 but the format still has its loyal fans (of which I am one).

These days the typical audio I produce is distributed online in high resolution AAC format - it’s efficient and effective, but so are millions of other web audio files in an ocean of new content every day - but sometime’s what’s old is new again. Perhaps one day Sony may release a new version of the format (with less draconian DRM), in the same way vinyl has made a revival. One can but hope!

05 September 2018

Behind the Scenes of the Man Booker: a National Life Stories film

Add comment

Sarah O'Reilly, oral history interviewer for Author's Lives writes about 50 years of the Man Booker Prize and a new film. produced by National Life Stories.  

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize, the leading literary award that rewards ‘fiction at its finest’.

Here at National Life Stories, we thought it would be a good moment to delve into our Oral History collections to see what we could find out about the history of the Man Booker, as revealed by the past administrators, winners, shortlisted authors and judges who we’ve recorded for the BL’s Sound Archive.

Booker advert resizedPublicity poster for the 1980 Booker Prize (Credit: Booker Prize Archive)

The early Man Booker was dogged by controversies. In 1972, winner John Berger announced he would be donating half his prize money to The Black Panthers. Two years later, judge Elizabeth Jane Howard fought successfully to have a book written by her husband Kinglsey Amis included on the shortlist. And two years after that, the winner was decided on a coin toss, because the judges couldn’t agree amongst themselves...

David Storey win the 1976 Man Booker Prize (C408/024)

Award resizedDavid Storey wins the 1976 Man Booker Prize (Credit: Marc Henrie)

It was only in the 1980s that the prize began to achieve international fame, helped first by the battle between William Golding and Anthony Burgess for the 1980 Booker, and then by Salman Rushdie who won the following year with ‘Midnight’s Children’. Fifteen years later, Salman Rushdie was one of a number of writers to leave congratulatory answerphone messages for Graham Swift, who was awarded the Man Booker in 1996 for his novel ‘Last Orders’:

Answerphone messages for Graham Swift, 1996

To hear these, and many other stories about the history of the Man Booker, watch this film.

18 June 2018

Recording of the week: Dennis Brutus

Add comment

This week's selection comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary & Creative Recordings.

In this archive recording from the African Writers Club collection, South African poet and anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus reads the introductory poem from his debut volume Sirens Knuckles Boots. At the time of the book's publication - in Nigeria in 1963 - its author was in prison on Robben Island. The reading is extracted from an interview with Brutus on his poetic work, conducted by Cosmo Pieterse and recorded 5 October 1966. 

Listen to Dennis Brutus reading from 'Sirens Knuckles Boots'

Dennis-Brutus-book-cover

The African Writers Club collection comprises over 250 hours of radio programmes recorded in the 1960s at the Transcription Centre, London, under its Director Dennis Duerden. The collection features interviews, readings and literary and current affairs discussions, and includes contributions by many of the leading African writers and artists of the time.

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

13 November 2017

Recording of the week: Ancient Evenings

Add comment

This week's selection comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary & Creative Recordings.

It is now 10 years since the death of Norman Mailer, one of the best-known and most widely read US authors of the post-war period. This week's recording features Mailer in discussion with Melvyn Bragg at the ICA. London, in 1983. Mailer's epic novel of ancient Egypt, Ancient Evenings, had been published just a few days previously. Mailer discourses on the 'class system' of Ancient Egypt, among related subjects. It didn't pay to be poor in those days either, apparently.

Norman Mailer and Melvyn Bragg in conversation (C95/55)

ICA-flyer

This recording comes from a substantial collection of talks and discussions held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London between 1982-1993. 

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.