Written mention of machines built to imitate human speech date as far back as the 13th century. Early devices, however, were deemed by the Church to be heretical and were often destroyed (in one instance, it is written, a talking device was smashed by St. Thomas Aquinas himself) or at least kept out of the public eye. It was not until the 18th century that the social climate was willing to permit the creation of mechanisms that imitated human elocution, safely protected under the umbrella of scientific pursuit.
In 1846, a German astronomer living in The United States named Joseph Faber unveiled his cutting-edge Euphonia at London’s Egyptian Hall, having accompanied P.T. Barnum across the Atlantic. Faber had spent the previous seventeen years perfecting this remarkable oddity, and had even dashed an earlier machine to bits out of frustration after American audiences failed to pay him much attention. A complex device controlled by seventeen levers, a bellows, and a telegraphic line, this machine was adorned with the movable replica of a human face, which was able to faithfully replicate the sounds of human speech. At the exhibition, Faber made the Euphonia sing a haunting rendition of God Save the Queen.
As author David Lindsay described it, “By pumping air with the bellows … and manipulating a series of plates, chambers, and other apparatus (including an artificial tongue … ), the operator could make it speak any European language.” Separate levers controlled the movements of the tongue, lips, jaw, and vocal chords.
While those who observed the Euphonia in action described its “voice” as ghostly and monotonous (one claiming that it had a, “horse sepulchral voice…as if from the depths of a tomb”), its imitation of human speech was remarkably advanced given the state of technology at the time. Many who viewed the machine in action, in fact, made the baffled accusation that a small person must have been hidden inside. Standing in sharp contrast to the pristine intricacy of the Euphonia, Faber himself appeared as the stereotypical disheveled inventor. As the London theater manager put it:
“The exhibitor, Professor Faber, was a sad-faced man, dressed in respectable well-worn clothes that were soiled by contact with tools, wood, and machinery. The room looked like a laboratory and workshop, which is was. The Professor was not too clean, and his hair and beard sadly wanted the attention of a barber. I had no doubt that he slept in the same room as the figure – his scientific Frankenstein monster – and I felt the secret influence of an idea that the two were destined to live and die together.”
Even after being promoted by Barnum, Faber and his Euphonia generated little profit and received minimal respect, often finding themselves the subjects of mockery. One of the Euphonia’s few devotees was a Scottish professor of speech named Melville Bell. His son, the famed Alexander Graham Bell, made various attempts to reproduce speech, the most successful of which resulted in his device known as the telephone. Bell’s technological milestone marks Faber’s greatest impact on the field of speech technology as he himself died in obscurity in the 1860s (first destroying the Euphonia and then taking his own life), little more than a bizarre historical footnote.
Faber’s story is almost archetypical. He artfully played the role, whether aware of it or not, of the disheveled monomaniac who produced work that was shockingly advanced for its time, but which was not valued during his life. His inglorious death, followed many years later by posthumous respect, further cements this identity. An immigrant, an isolated genius, a professional failure, and a victim of suicide, Faber was a casualty on the battlefield of technological progress, only given his due respect decades after his bones were as cold and dead as the spectral face of the Euphonia itself.
Some Further Reading: