“The biggest thing of all in research is the mental effect,” Willis Whitney wrote in 1921, “the projecting of a beam of light into the infinite and the growth of man’s appreciation.”
Whitney was a manager at the General Electric Research Lab and believed that tech research was as much about inspiring people to think about new possibilities as it was about practical applications. In 1927 those possibilities included a revolutionary new concept—a technology we now call the audiobook.
The March 1927 issue of Science and Invention magazine reported on research being conducted at the GE Research Lab by Dr. Willis Whitney and his team. They called the tech behind their latest work an “electric book reader.” It was a way to record and play back audio from a recorded book. But the driving force behind the idea wasn’t literary laziness, it was efficiency.
That’s because the device didn’t just play the sound of someone reading a book; it could play it back at a much faster rate than that at which it was recorded. Since humans can understand speech delivered much faster than the rate at which it’s generally spoken, the original “speed reading” was really just speed listening.
This idea proved far too forward thinking for 1927, with audiobooks on long-playing records still decades away from becoming a mainstream success outside the blind community. But at the very least Whitney’s research aligned with his idea for the role of research in helping to build the future.