Euphonia Speaking Machine

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In the 17th and 18th century, speaking machines were designed to replicate the human vocal tract and produce mechanical speech entirely autonomous from the human body. Joseph Faber’s “Euphonia” exhibited in 1845 was one of the most sophisticated and eloquent speaking machines.
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Artificial Speech

The Euphonia was a remediation of the telegraph, using keys that correspond to specific consonants and vowels, but this transmission ends with an audible voice. Its digital input produces an ephemeral output and like the telegraph, the transmission begins as catoptric and ends as dioptric. Speaking machines free the voice that is trapped in the transmission of messages through the telegraph and even letters. It is the message that can announce and speak itself. It is also a remediation of ventriloquism that allows the dummy to speak without the obscured voice of the ventriloquist. Its piano like structure with seventeen keys and pedals emphasizes Faber not only as creator and generator of this voice but also it’s master and manipulator. Mastery, however, is limited by the capabilities built into the design. While it was designed to speak in a normal tone, a whisper, and to sing, 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. It is reported that the Euphonia could speak in any language, although was only demonstrated in English, French and German. This is something that goes beyond the capabilities of most humans and revealing its potential for communication as having even greater possibilities than human communication.
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Externalization of the Voice

The artificial human head is a skeumorph because it only the mouth that serves the function of forming and articulating the speech. The rest of the head is purely aesthetic without function. The head rather serves to provide an index of the human and to appease the expectation of speech as something that emerges from the human body. The head is also described as resembling the Turk, Wolfgang Von Kempelen’s popular automaton, revealing another skeuomorph as the Turk would have been familiar to audiences. So why not include a body, why just the head? The floating head without a body announces the immortality of speech, the speech that can live on after the body is dead. In this sense, mechanical speech becomes like the written word, archived and separate from man. Doubled externalization of the voice.

The detached human head can’t help but signify the absence of a body, where the machine itself must become the prosthetic body attached to the head.

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The Machine Strikes Back

The Euphonia acts as a physical representation of the dilemma of speaking. In the act of speaking, the subject loses the words in the moment they are uttered as they are no longer of the body and of the subjects possession. This experience of expression which causes 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 four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis p.188).” Speech is about address and addressing the Other, yet it is the machine as Other which addresses the crowd, inverting 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.

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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. So here 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, far before its time, the speaking machine that can replace politicians and preachers. They published, “A clear saving of 10,000 a year might be effected by setting up a machine en permanence in the Speaker’s chair of the House of Commons. Place the mace before it. Have a large snuff-box on the side, with rappee and Irish for the convenience of Members, and a simple apparatus for crying out ‘Order, order’ at intervals of ten minutes, and you have a speaker at the most trifling cost. (Punch Magazine p.86).” This fear of human obsolescence in the face of the machine was already being evoked in the mid 19th century. This is also the machine striking back, where the human then is forced to become as efficient as the machine and also offer cheaper labor. Technology here shapes biology, artificial shaping the organic. Part of the satirical view here is that the position is already mechanical in its essence, producing a worker who acts like an automaton, making his replacement by an actual automaton logical. Faber ended up revealing along his wonderful talking machine, the machine within the human, the mechanical construction of human beings.

Speaking machines were remediated into the telephone, phonograph, and later, into robot and computerized speech. Speaking machines fell out of favor with the shift from mechanical to electrical.