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The Voder: The First Machine To Produce Human Speech

Mar 20, 2017
Originally published on March 20, 2017 3:39 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Before Siri spoke up as the iPhone's digital assistant or the Amazon Echo was taking requests in people's homes, there was the granddaddy of all talking devices.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Helen (ph), will you have the Voder say, greetings everybody?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Greetings, everybody.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

(Laughter) Everybody that robotic voice is the Voder - V-O-D-E-R - full name - voice-operating demonstrator. It was developed by an engineer, Homer Dudley, at Bell Labs about 90 years ago.

ERIC GRUNDHAUSER: It's interesting as a stepping stone, in terms of the speech synthesis that we experience every day now.

CORNISH: That's Eric Grundhauser, a staff writer for Atlas Obscura.

GRUNDHAUSER: To create this synthetic speech, you had have an operator who was working the Voder, not unlike an ultra-complicated piano or organ.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, for example, in producing the word concentration on the Voder, I have to form 13 different sounds in succession.

MCEVERS: In this promotional film, the female Voder operator presses down on what looks like piano keys. There were also foot pedals. Learning to manipulate them to produce words was not easy.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: About how long it take you to become an expert in operating the Voder?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It took me about a year of constant practice.

MCEVERS: Remember that the next time you get frustrated trying to learn how to use a new digital device.

CORNISH: In any case, Grundhauser says the Voder was never marketed to the public.

GRUNDHAUSER: They were always meant as sort of an experiment, as a - as a show piece.

CORNISH: The Voder appeared in public only twice - at the 1939 World's Fair in New York and at an exposition in San Francisco the same year.

MCEVERS: And although the Voder was considered revolutionary at the time, none of the machines are known to have survived.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Suppose you sing a song for us?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AULD LANG SYNE")

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Singing) Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought...

MCEVERS: Unlike today's devices, the Voder was far too big, far too complicated to make it into our lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AULD LANG SYNE")

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Singing) Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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