SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Before there was any of this screen stuff, there was the Voice-O-Graph, a machine about the size of a phone booth. And in the 1940s, it was the only way to send a voice message. It allowed people to record their own voices onto a vinyl disk and send it to friends or relatives. There are only a few original working Voice-O-Graphs left. One is currently on display in London, and NPR's Leila Fadel went to check it out.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: At Phonica Records in Central London, people line up in front of the Voice-O-Graph for a dose of nostalgia. It's been made available to the public as part of a PR campaign for a Scotch whisky company. Joel Harrison is a whisky writer working on the campaign.
JOEL HARRISON: Yeah, we're looking at an original 1947 Voice-O-Graph, which was a booth placed quite often in things like bars or hotels, so people could go in and record their own voice direct to vinyl.
FADEL: Working examples are incredibly rare. Musician and record producer Jack White has refurbished one, and Neil Young recorded his latest album with it. The machines were developed in the U.S. in the 1940s. There used to be one at the top of the Empire State Building. And during wartime, it made it possible for soldiers and their families to send their voices to each other.
And at Phonica, where they sell mostly vinyl records, people are waiting in line for what Harrison calls a blast from that past.
HARRISON: It sounds so ghostly. It's as if the walls have been seeped with the experience of the people who have used it before.
FADEL: Today, the customers are going in one at a time, sometimes two at a time, but it's a tight squeeze. Nick Door, an art installer, is recording a love letter.
NICK DOOR: I'm just going to see what comes out of my mouth and then give it to my wife when I get home. Hopefully, I'll say something nice.
FADEL: I step inside to record my own message. I pop in a quarter and stand in front of the chrome, 1940s microphone.
Right in front of me, there's a sign that tells us sort of how things work. So it starts with how to make a recording, then a space lights up, and it gives us 65 seconds to go.
The machine whirs, and there's a handy '40s-style list of suggestions of things to say.
Mail a recorded letter home to mother or dad, the family. Tell about your trip. Record your child's voice. Send greetings to relatives and friends back home.
On the outside of the booth, it says, hear yourself the way that others hear you. But the machine is definitely showing its age. This is my recording.
(SOUNDBITE OF VOICE-O-GRAPH RECORDING)
FADEL: On the tube, on the tube (ph).
It may not be much of a recording device, but it does work as a time machine. Step inside, and you feel like you're back in 1947. Leila Fadel, NPR News, London.
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