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Talking Heads: Simulacra
The Early History of Talking Machines

The earliest speaking machines were perceived as the heretical works of magicians and thus as attempts to defy god. In the thirteenth century the philosopher Albertus Magnus is said to have created a head that could talk, only to see if destroyed by St. Thomas Aquinas, a former student of his, as an abomination. The English scientist-monk Roger Bacon seems to have produced one as well. That fakes were appearing in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is shown by Miguel de Cervantes's description of a head that spoke to Don Quixote -- with the help of a tube that led to the floor below. Like Magnus, this fictitious inventor also feared the judgement of religious authorities, though in his case he took it upon himslef to destroy the heresy. By the eighteenth century science had started to shed its connection to magic, and the problem of artificial speech was taken up by inventors of a more mechanical bent."

David Lindsay, "Talking Head", Invention & Technology, Summer 1997, 57-63.

Some of these mechanical talking devices are described below.
This is followed by examples of early electrical talking devices.


"Around 1770 Friedrick von Knaus demonstrated a talking machine before the Austrian emperor and the duke of Tuscany. Little is know of their efforts." Lindsay (1997, p. 58)

Kratzenstein's resonators for the synthesis of vowel sounds (1779).
(The Exploratorium's Vocal Vowels exhibit is a modern version of Kratzenstein's resonators.)

Von Kempelen's talking machine (1791).

The Euphonia: Joseph Faber's Amazing Talking Machine (1830-40's).

Charles Wheatsone's refinements of Von Kempelen's talking machine: late 1800's.

Alexander & Melville Graham Bell: physical working model of the human vocal tract.

Erasmus Darwin's speech synthesizer.

R. R. Riesz's talking mechanism (1937).

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J. Q. Stewart, Electrical analog of the vocal organs (1922).

The Voder (1939)

The Haskins Laboratories Pattern Playback (1950)

Dunn's Electrical Vocal Tract (1950)

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