Von Kempelen’s Speaking Machine

The first attempt to create a machine that could generate human-like speech sounds is typically attributed to Wolfgang von Kempelen in the latter half of the 18th century (see Hartmut Traunmuller’s excellent page on the history of speaking machines for more information). Von Kempelen, who is more widely known for his creation of the “The Turk”, a fake chess-playing machine, is considered by some to be the first experimental phonetician. Von Kempelen created a mechanical device consisting of a bellows that forced air through a reed into a chamber whose resonant properties could be manipulated with the hands to simulate a range of speech sounds. As seen in the video below, which demonstrates a modern replica of Von Kempelen’s machine created by Fabian Brackhane and colleagues, the “speech” produced by the machine is pretty rudimentary, but it started the ball rolling toward the impressive synthetic speech systems available today.