The earliest known talking machine was developed in 1778 by Wolfgang von Kempelen. Eyewitnesses reported that it could speak several words in a timid, childlike voice. While the talking machine’s success appears genuine, Baron von Kempelen’s accomplishments are not above suspicion. Nine years earlier, he had built a chess-playing machine, which defeated many players, including Napoleon (who, incidentally, made several unsuccessful attempts to cheat). Eventually, it was discovered that the machine was a fraud—its cabinet concealed a hidden, human chess player, who controlled the game.
In 1830, Professor Joseph Faber of Vienna, Austria, produced his own speaking automaton. Faber’s machine, dubbed Euphonia, had taken 25 years to construct. Designed to look like a bearded Turk, the creation could recite the alphabet, whisper, laugh, and ask “How do you do?” Speech was produced by its inner workings—double bellows, levers, gears, and keys located inside the mannequin. Strangely enough, Euphonia spoke English with a German accent.
The first talking machines employing electronic technology were developed in the 1930s. The Voice Operation Demonstrator, or Voder, invented by Homer Dudley in 1933, could imitate human speech and even utter complete sentences as its operator pressed keys on a board. Speech-synthesis technology evolved further with the rapid development of computer technology in the 1950s. During the late 1960s, the MITalk System was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although originally designed as a reading machine for the blind, once completed, the system could convert virtually any type of text into speech-synthesized output.
Raymond Kurzweil also developed speech-synthesis technology to aid the blind. In 1976, he produced the Kurzweil reading machine which could read everything from a phone bill to a full-length novel and provided unlimited-vocabulary synthesized output. Sometimes called a set of eyes for the blind, the reading machine has proved very popular.
Today, speech synthesis is a useful way to convey information in public places. Cars, appliances, and even games are being equipped with voice-synthesizer chips.