Euphonia Speaking Machine

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“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 Gitelman

In 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.
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Artificial Speech - Re(organ)izing Language and the Body

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Faber’s Euphonia was not only a response to the telegraph, it was also a remediation of it. He imagined a telegraph that could speak, and so constructed an elaborate model of the human vocal tract and mouth to realize this conception. Faber began by studying both language and human vocal anatomy in order to understand how to break them down into parts and then reorganize them. The Euphonia operated by “By pumping air with the bellows and using different combinations of 16 keys to manipulate a series of plates, chambers, and other apparatus including an artificial tongue, the operator could make it speak any European language (Levy 29).” Faber created an artificial organ through which artificial speech could be achieved. The artificial organ of speech is doubled by the machine as musical organ and an extension of the silent organ that is Faber’s own vocal tract.

Like the telegraph, the Euphonia used keys that correspond to specific consonants and vowels, but 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 with keys and pedals emphasize Faber not only as creator and generator of this voice but also its master and manipulator. Vilem Flusser writes, “Fingertips are organs of choice, of decision (Flusser 92)” and he goes on say that the selection is programmed. Choice is therefore limited not only by the design choice of Faber’s machine with only sixteen keys to select from, but it is also limited by the human alphabet and language as something that selection cannot go beyond. In this sense, the perceived mastery of the machine is also limited by the selections already 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 in the speech.

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.


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