Before Siri & Alexa: Hear the First Attempt to Use a Synthesizer to Recreate the Human Voice (1939)

Whether from Stephen Hawk­ing, Siri, or any­one in between, we’ve all heard quite a lot of elec­tron­i­cal­ly syn­the­sized speech by now. But less than eighty years ago, the very idea of a human-sound­ing voice pro­duced in a mechan­i­cal man­ner inspired won­der and dis­tur­bance in equal mea­sure. The every­man and every­woman got their first chance to hear such a tech­nol­o­gy at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, dur­ing its hourly demon­stra­tions of the very first speech syn­the­siz­er, the “Voder.” Who, they must have imag­ined as they stood before its boom­ing square-jawed-Art-Deco-hero logo, could have invent­ed such a thing?

Homer Dud­ley, an elec­tron­ic and acoustic engi­neer at Bell Labs, had in the 1920s invent­ed the “Vocoder” (or “Voice Oper­at­ed reCorDER”), a device that could con­vert human speech into an elec­tron­ic sig­nal and then, some­where else down the like, turn that sig­nal back into speech again.

For the Voder (or “Voice Oper­a­tion DEmon­stra­toR”) he took the ini­tial voice out of the sig­nal, cre­at­ing a kind of syn­the­siz­er ded­i­cat­ed to the sounds of speech that one could oper­ate man­u­al­ly, through an inter­face some­what resem­bling that of an organ. Its con­trols (which you can see dia­grammed at 120 Years of Elec­ton­ic Music) pre­sent­ed a steep enough learn­ing curve that few­er than thir­ty peo­ple, most­ly the “girls” employed for the Voder’s demon­stra­tions, ever learned to play it.

Though impres­sive for the time (the oth­er feat of arti­fi­cial human­i­ty at that World’s Fair being Elec­tro the Smok­ing Robot), “the Voder’s speech came out a lit­tle hard to under­stand, and even a bit unset­tling,” accord­ing to Atlas Obscu­ra. “The Voder was shown again dur­ing San Francisco’s Gold­en Gate Inter­na­tion­al Expo­si­tion in late 1939, but after that, the machine dis­ap­peared almost instant­ly.” Speech syn­the­sis itself, by con­trast, had come to stay, though progress would remain rel­a­tive­ly slow for the next four or five decades. Now, in the 21st cen­tu­ry, it exists all around us, and despite con­sid­er­able improve­ments in real­ism, its voic­es still retain a bit of the unearth­ly awk­ward­ness of the Voder — and we prob­a­bly would­n’t have it any oth­er way.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load the Soft­ware That Pro­vides Stephen Hawking’s Voice

Mon­ty Python’s “Argu­ment Clin­ic” Sketch Reen­act­ed by Two Vin­tage Voice Syn­the­siz­ers (One Is Stephen Hawking’s Voice)

Sovi­et Inven­tor Léon Theremin Shows Off the Theremin, the Ear­ly Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment That Could Be Played With­out Being Touched (1954)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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