Euphonia Speaking Machine
“The very idea of a ‘Talking Machine’ seemed impossible, the term an oxymoron. It denoted a contradictory combination of biological and mechanical function, a nineteenth-century cyborg.” – Lisa GitelmanIn the 18th and 19th century, speaking machines were designed to replicate human organs of speech and produce mechanical voice entirely autonomous from the human body. Joseph Faber’s “Euphonia” exhibited in 1845 was one of the most sophisticated speaking machines which led to the invention of the telephone. Speaking machines were remediated into the telephone, phonograph and eventually evolved into current computerized speech.
Artificial Speech - Re(organ)izing Language and the Body
The Euphonia used keys that correspond to specific consonants and vowels, but unlike the telegraph, this transmission ended with an audible voice. Its digital input produced an ephemeral output and like the telegraph, the transmission began catoptrically and ended dioptrically. Speaking machines free the voice that is trapped in the transmission of messages, allowing the message itself to speak. It is also a remediation of ventriloquism that allows the dummy to speak without the obscured voice of the ventriloquist. Its piano and organ-like structure emphasize Faber not only as creator of this voice but also as master and manipulator. Vilem Flusser writes, “Fingertips are organs of choice, of decision (Flusser 92)” and he goes on say that the selection is already programmed. Choice is therefore limited not only by the design of Faber’s machine with sixteen keys to select from, but the alphabet and language are also a limit. The “cake mix effect” can be seen in the keys and pedals as mechanized and predetermined, but the operator is able to choose the words, the pitch of the words, and can choose from three different speaking modes (normal speaking tone, whisper, or song). The mastery of the machine is limited by the selections already built into the design as it was not for example, designed to scream. It’s possible that a screaming effect could have been achieved by hacking the machine and manipulating the pedals, which control pitch, but no such instance was ever recorded. Its mechanical monotone also limited the capacity for affect and emotion in the speech.
Externalization of the Voice
The relationship between the artificial speech and the body of the speaker is one of metonymy. The voice is separated from the body and in this externalization it becomes a relationship of parts, which signal other parts. Jonathan Crary writes, “the machine makes use of man by subjecting him to a relation of contiguity, of part to other parts, and of exchangeability. He [Marx] is quite specific about the new metonymic status of the human subject Crary 131).” The voice becomes a part of the body outside the body, and is made to be externalized, manipulated, separated, rearranged, and exchanged. The voice has a metonymic relationship to the whole body as Hermes or the vessel and carrier of the voice.This calling attention to parts is unmistakable in the artificial head detached from a body, which can’t help but signify an absent body. The machine itself becomes the prosthetic of that missing body. The artificial human head is a skeuomorph because the mouth is the only functioning part, leaving the rest of the head as purely aesthetic. The head rather serves to provide an indexical sign of the whole body and to appease the expectation of speech as something that emerges from the human body. The head is also described as resembling Wolfgang Von Kempelen’s popular automaton “The Turk.” The display of the Turk is also a display of the Other and the mechanical Turk as a double Other furthering the externalization of the voice in the voice of the Other. The floating head without a body announces the immortality of speech, the speech that can live on after the body is dead. The externalization of language into text was similarly perceived as immortal text. The detached head coupled with its mechanical voice carried the message of a call from the dead. A first hand account recalled that the head, “produced words which slowly and deliberately in a hoarse sepulchral voice came from the mouth of the figure, as if from the depths of a tomb” and referred to the figure as one of “unmeasurable sorrow (Hankins and Silverman 214).” The crypt is evoked here as encryption of life. The head did not signal immortality but rather called attention to the materiality of death and this physical machine transforms into the spectral ephemerality of speech itself.
The Machine Strikes Back
The Euphonia acts as a physical representation of the dilemma of speaking in which the subject loses the words in the moment they are uttered escaping from the body the subjects possession. This experience of expression as alienation separates the subject from the speech. The speaking machine is a further alienation of speech as it is produced from a place of distance within the machine. Lacan writes, “Through the effects of speech, the subject always realizes himself more in the Other, but he is already pursuing there more than half of himself. He will simply find his desire ever more divided, pulverized, in the circumscribable metonymy of speech (Lacan, 188).” Speech is about address and addressing the Other, yet it is the machine as Other which addresses the crowd, inverting the relationship between man and machine. This is a machine that strikes back just as the lever strikes back for Flusser. This humanizes the machine and mechanizes the audience. Crary describes the observer as having always been technologized, but so to the speaker is always technologized. The experience of speaking is one of metonymy, not about producing a mimetic copy of reality, but speaking as about slipping away, dividing the subject, and subjectively interpreting the real.
Death of the Speaker
While the Euphonia amazed people, there was resistance to it, perhaps because its ability to imitate a human speaker incited fear of replacement by the machine. It is not that the machine promises eternal speech after the speaker’s death, but rather the death of the speaker in favor of the artificial speech. Punch Magazine commented satirically on this sentiment, “A clear saving of 10,000 a year might be effected by setting up a machine […] in the Speaker’s chair of the House of Commons, […] Have a simple apparatus for crying out ‘Order, order’ at intervals of ten minutes, and you have a speaker at the most trifling cost. (Hankins and Silverman, 214).” This fear of human obsolescence in the face of the machine was already being felt in the mid 19th century. This is also the machine striking back, and the artificial shaping the organic, where the human is forced to mimic the efficiency and cheap labor of the machine. Punch magazine points out the mechanical essence of certain jobs, producing a worker who acts like an automaton. Flusser wrote, “Nothing human is natural. That which is natural about us is inhuman (Flusser 95).” The habitual and automatic aspects of human behavior are mechanical and inhuman. Faber ended up revealing along with his speaking machine, the machine within the human and the mechanical construction of human beings, something that would later lead to development in robotics and computers. The Euphonia failed to preserve the human causing it to fall out of favor and to be replaced by the telephone.
Crary, Jonathan. "Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century". Boston, MA: MIT Press, 1992
Flusser, Vilém. "The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design". London, UK: Reaktion Books, 1999
Gitelman, Lisa. "Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era". Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999
Hankins, Thomas L. and Robert J. Silverman. "Instruments of the Imagination". Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995
Lacan, Jacques. "The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis". New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1978
Levy, David N.L. "Robots Unlimited: Life in a Virtual Age". Wellesley, MA: A K Peters Ltd, 2006