The Voder

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The 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: a voice.

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. 

Click to enlarge

Voder schematics

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 sang.

By the way, if that little ditty sounds familiar, it's because a certain celebrity did a cover of it a few years later.

*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 pithy.

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