13th century Friar Albertus Magnus is said to have spent upwards of three decades engineering a mechanical head that could move and speak. So terrifying was his creation that Thomas Aquinas smashed it on first sight.1
It would take another 500 years for Europeans to finally ease their attitude toward lifelike automata. In 1739, Jacques de Vaucanson captured the public imagination with his “Defecating Duck,” a bizarre clockwork apparatus that ate food pellets and shat them out the other side. In 1770, Wolfang von Kempelen debuted his mystifying chess-bot (known simply as “The Turk”). The machine would go on to best the likes of Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin.2
Simulating human speech, however, proved a more elusive goal. While Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s robots could be programmed to write and draw pretty much anything, the most advanced mechanical speech synthesizers of the 18th century could utter nothing more than a few select words and phrases. It wasn’t until the early 1840s that an obscure German inventor by the name of Joseph Faber conjured up the very first bona-fide talking head.
No joke people. His machine could pronounce any combination of vowels and consonants, in any European language.3 In the hands of a skilled operator, it could laugh, whisper, talk, and even sing!3
Faber accomplished this feat by carefully aping the structure of the human vocal tract. A bellows, pumped by a foot pedal, served as the gadget’s lung. The glottis and mouth were modeled though a complex system of levers, tubes, and shutters, hooked up to a keyboard, and cloaked under the stoney-eyed mask of a human face.
“Euphonia,” as it would later be dubbed, was leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessors. Faber could have promoted his work within the scientific community, or used it as a springboard for practical applications. Instead, he chose to spend the rest of his life as a cheap showman, touring the head across Europe and The United States.4
It’s hard to fathom why, since by most accounts he wasn’t much of an entertainer. As theater manager John Hollingshead recalls:
“The Professor was not too clean, and his hair and beard sadly wanted the attention of a barber. I have no doubt that he slept in the same room as his figure – his scientific Frankenstein monster – and I felt the secret influence of an idea that the two were destined to live and die together.”5
Hollingshead notes, with particular horror, the machine’s “sepulchral version of ‘God Save the Queen,’” which he quips, “suggested inevitably, God save the inventor.”5
The London press turned Faber into a punchline:
“By the way, why should not Lord George Bentick have one of these machines constructed, with a Benjamin Disraeli figure-head, and play upon it himself at once, and spare the honourable Member for Shrewsbury the bother of being his Lordship’s Euphonia?”6
Needless to say, Faber’s act failed miserably. In a frenzy of madness and frustration, the sad German hacked and set fire to his life’s work.4
Faber belongs to that particular breed of mad scientists who miserably marry themselves to their inventions—the Pygmalions and Promethei of the world, for whom creation is a mere end in itself. Only, marriage is an inappropriate term for the union, as the contract certainly does not terminate at death. In hell the two wretched souls remain forever entwined, plunged into an infinity of torture and despair.
While Faber would rebuild Euphonia once again and resume the touring life, success continued to elude him.
Sometime in the 1860s, guy dropped of the face of the Earth. A few decades later, his head followed suit.4
VODER, the world’s first electronic speech synthesizer, premiered at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.7 From that point on, speech synthesis has been cast as branch of computational signal processing. Faber’s hand-pumped, human-controlled talking head was doomed to obscurity, perhaps forever.
It’s a bummer because it would be soooo cool to hear what this thing sounded like. Our ability to build weird shit has increased so dramatically since the 19th century that many steampunk wet dreams are becoming reality. Aviation engineers recently developed a human-powered ornithopter that flies by flapping its wings. Programmer John Graham-Cumming has set out to build a steam-powered, gear-driven, PC (post to come on this most probably). Surely with today’s technology we could even improve upon Faber’s design. Imagine, instead of a clunky keyboard, a sexy sax with a human face stretched over its opening. I can just hear it now: It—must—have been moo—oooonglo—HONK! Eh people?
Recently, there have been a few horrifying attempts (see below) to wire physical models of the human vocal tract to computer controllers.9 But thus far, judging by publicity videos, even these fanciful creations seem incapable of producing anything beyond chilling infantilisms.
Ah Joseph, you were ahead of one time and behind another, but perhaps in obscurity you will find salvation. The internet loves its losers, all the more so if they’re frighteningly insane.
1. Hankins, T.L., Silverman, R.J. (1995). Instruments and the Imagination. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
2. Riskin, J. (2003). The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life. Critical Inquiry, 29, 599-633.
3. Lindsay, D. (1997). Madness in the Making: The Triumphant Rise & Untimely Fall of America’s Show Inventors. New York: Kondasha America.
4. Lindsay, D. (1997). Talking Head. Invention and Technology Magazine, 13(1). (url: http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/1997/1/1997_1_56.shtml).
5. Hollingshead, J. (1895). My Lifetime: Vol 2. London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Co.
6. Lemon, M., Mayhew, H., Taylor, T., Brooks, S., Burnand, F.C., Seaman, O. (1846). The Speaking Machine. Punch, 11, 83.
7. Dudley, H. (1950). The Speaking Machine of Wolfgang von Kempelen. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 22(1), 151-166.
8. Bruce, R.V. (1973). Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.
9. Ngo, D. (2010). Video: moaning rubber robot mouth simulates human voices, fuels our nightmares. Retrieved from: http://www.popsci.com/gadgets/article/2010-04/freaky-robot-mouth-simulates-human-voices. (2010, April 19).