1939 New York World's Fair not only had the world's most famous robot
of the day, they also had a machine that gave what every robot needs:
The Bell Telephone Laboratory's Voder* was the
first attempt to synthesise human speech by breaking it down into its
component sounds and then reproducing the sound patterns
electronically to create speech.
That sounds simple in theory and, in fact it was.
The Voder actually produced only two basic sounds: a tone generated by
a radio valve to produce the vocal sounds and a hissing noise produced
by a gas discharge tube to create the sibilants. These basic
sounds were passed through a set of filters and an amplifier that
mixed and modulated them until what came out of the loudspeaker
sounded something like this.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, what was
simple in theory was extremely difficult in practice. To get the
machine to actually speak required an operator to manipulate a set of
keys and a foot pedal to convert the hisses and tones into vowels,
consonants, stops, and inflections. And the operator needed a
year's practice just to master the keys. Even then, how to get a
robot to do proper talking instead of recreating pre-programmed
patterns or voice from text without an operator was another level of
aggravation that we're still trying to sort out.
Still, the results were impressive enough to
keep the boys at Bell playing around with speech synthesis until
they came up with a robot voice in the 1960s that not only talked, it
the way, if that little ditty sounds familiar, it's because a certain
celebrity did a cover of it a few years
*Or "Pedro," as it was nicknamed after the Brazilian
emperor Dom Pedro who on seeing the telephone at the Centennial
Exposition of 1876 exclaimed "It talks!" Yeah. Real