Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Speech Puppet

Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804) is perhaps best known as the designer of The Turk, an automated chess-playing machine which amazed the wealthy and the wise in late 1700s Europe. It was a fake, but nevertheless brought him a lot of fame during his life.

More impressively, he invented a machine that could speak. He began working on it in 1769, and slowly perfected it over time. Charles Dickens wrote about it (in 1870, so probably working from second-hand sources)

“Having combined the results of his researches, he constructed a head which contained the requisite wind-tubes and vibrating reeds, and a bust provided with some kind of bellows. Thus armed, his automaton could pronounce the words “opera,” “astronomy,” “Constantinople,” “vous etes mon amie,” “je vous aime de tout mon coeur,” “Leopoldus secundus,” and “Romanum imperator semper Augustus.” These words were spoken when the machine was wound up, without any player being required to press upon keys and pedals.”

A more contemporary source (although I forgot to note the source) records:

“When Widisch heard the device he said it answered ‘clearly and distinctly’ in a ‘sweet and agreeable voice,’ but that it pronounced the letter r ‘lispingly and with a certain harshness.’ He added, ‘When its answer is not perfectly understood, it repeats it slower, and if required to speak a third time, it repeats it again, but with a tone of impatience and vexation’.”

(A nice example of how people can read emotions into inanimate objects, by the way.)

These days, it seems that a full working model of Kempelen’s machine doesn’t exist, although on YouTube there is a reconstruction which needs to be manipulated by hand for it to work. It says little more than “mama” and “papa”, but perhaps given time and a little practice, some of Kemplelen’s lessons could be re-learnt and some dexterous operator could make the machine speak again.

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