When Joseph Faber invented his “amazing talking machine” he had envisioned somehow connecting it to a telegraph to, converting the dots and dashes into a real human voice. It was a great idea, but only 150 year ahead of his time.
Innovators today look at Faber’s artificial tongue technology, where air from billows cross a passageway that resembles human vocal cords, and ponder it’s potential use as the voice of the modern computer.
In December 1845, Joseph Faber exhibited his “Wonderful Talking Machine” at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia. This machine, as recently described by writer David Lindsay, consisted of a bizarre-looking talking head that spoke in a “weird, ghostly monotone” as Faber manipulated it with foot pedals and a keyboard.
Just prior to this public exhibition, Joseph Henry visited Faber’s workshop to witness a private demonstration. Henry’s friend and fellow scientist, Robert M. Patterson, had tried to drum up financial support for Faber, a beleaguered German immigrant struggling to earn a living and learn how to speak English. Henry, who was often asked to distinguish fraudulent from genuine inventions, agreed to go with Patterson to look at the machine. If an act of ventriloquism was at work, he was sure to detect it.
Instead of a hoax, which he had suspected, Henry found a “wonderful invention” with a variety of potential applications. “I have seen the speaking figure of Mr. Wheatstone of London,” Henry wrote in a letter to a former student, “but it cannot be compared with this which instead of uttering a few words is capable of speaking whole sentences composed of any words what ever.”
Henry observed that sixteen levers or keys “like those of a piano” projected sixteen elementary sounds by which “every word in all European languages can be distinctly produced.” A seventeenth key opened and closed the equivalent of the glottis, an aperture between the vocal cords. “The plan of the machine is the same as that of the human organs of speech, the several parts being worked by strings and levers instead of tendons and muscles.”
Henry, who in 1831 had invented a demonstration telegraph while pursuing his electromagnetic investigations, believed that many applications of Faber’s machine “could be immagined [sic]” in connection with the telegraph. “The keys could be worked by means of electro-magnetic magnets and with a little contrivance not difficult to execute words might be spoken at one end of the telegraphic line which have their origin at the other.” A devout Presbyterian, Henry immediately seized upon the possibility of having a sermon delivered over the wires to several churches simultaneously.
…Faber, who had destroyed an earlier version of his talking machine out of frustration over an unappreciative public, apparently felt encouraged by the response of Henry and Patterson to his new machine. In 1846, he accompanied P. T. Barnum to London, where the “Euphonia,” as it was now called, was put on display at London’s Egyptian Hall. The exhibit drew an endorsement from the Duke of Wellington and remained a part of Barnum’s repertoire for the next several decades. The financial returns for Faber, however, were meager. He would die in the 1860s without achieving the fame or fortune he sought.
Faber would thus not live to witness the most important outcome of his invention. By a curious twist of fate, one person who happened to see the Euphonia in London in 1846 and come away deeply impressed was Melville Bell, the father of Alexander Graham Bell…— Joseph Henry and the Telephone
It was Bell’s own efforts to simulate speech, initially through constructing mechanisms similar to Faber’s, that eventually led him to try the modulation electric current. Joseph Henry, himself a pioneer of the field of electromagnetism and by that time (1874) the first director of the Smithsonian Institute, immediately grasped the importance of Bell’s invention. He became Alexander Graham Bell’s first and most influential supporter.
More about an earlier version, Wolfgang Von Kempelen’s talking pipe organ here
Via the Smithsonian Institution