The Voder

The 1938 New York World’s Fair housed many different interesting inventions with a variety of applications, among them was the Voder.  The Voder was invented in Bell Labs and was first unveiled at the 1938 World’s Fair in AT&T’s pavilion.  The Voder is one of the first known attempts to synthesize human voices without using a human voice as input.  The Voder was revolutionary in concept as it provided a basis for voice synthesis technologies that would later be used in technologies like voice assistants like Siri and Google Assistant. 

In order to synthesize a word, the Voder required an operator to use a keyboard that is often likened to an organ keyboard with ten keys, a wrist plate that can be pushed down to make the keys make different sounds, and a pedal to control vibrato/pitch. Operation of the Voder was very difficult, and there were at most 30 people who were ever trained to use it (mostly women), each taking about a year learning how to operate it well due to its complexity.  The Voder was never meant to be a commercial product, essentially being made solely to promote Bell Labs at the 1938 World’s Fair, but it serves as an important benchmark in technology, showing that as early as 1938, people were both able and interested in replicating human voices using machines (though the voice produced by the Voder was often somewhat hard to understand.)  The Voder was ahead of its time (which its creators were likely aware of) as after being shown in the San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939 it, “disappeared”, according to Eric Grundhauser.  One interesting thing about the Voder is that people who wrote about it around the time of its unveiling sometimes to personified it as they likely got an impression that there may be some sort of human intelligence contained within the machine itself. 

The room where the Voder was presented at the Fair (taken from the public domain)

The Voder fit in well with the fair’s focus on the future as it represented the idea that machines could at some point communicate with users using voice.  In our modern day, this has become reality with programs like Siri, Google Assistant, and many other voice synthesizing programs; do to this, you could say that the Voder truly did predict the future in that machine synthesized voices would become a normal everyday thing (though not by the 1960s.)  That said, the fact that an operator had to work the Voder in real time for it to talk did take away from some of the appeal of a machine talking, the idea that a non-living being could effectively communicate with a living one.  That and as is demonstrated by this recording of a radio broadcast, the Voder sounded almost nothing like a human.

Links to sources used in the creation of this blog post:

For further reading about the Voder, this whitepaper has a good amount of information about it.

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