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Not Mr. Edison's Talking Machine

Shown is a female operator at the keyboard of Faberís "Euphonia", a mechanical speech synthesizer that spoke through moving lips in a sepulchrous, creepy monotone and inspired Bellís work toward his telephone.

There are talking machines, and then there are machines that talk. Perhaps the first known use of the term "talking machine" in the U.S.A. was in the Quincy, Illinois, Herald in 1844 (1), to describe Joseph Faberís mechanical speech synthesizer that was played with a keyboard and foot-pedals, like an organ. Possibly the later uses of the term by Edison and The Victor were appropriated from Faberís well-known contrivance.

There had been much earlier attempts to fabricate devices that could approximate human speech. The natural philosopher and bishop Albertus Magnus (c. 1206-1280) constructed a head that moved and spoke, but his former pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas, destroyed or hid it as an abomination and a blasphemous challenge of the Divine Order. Roger Bacon (1214-1294), an English monk and the inventor of eyeglasses, is also supposed to have made such a contraption and in the 1770s Abbť Michal in Paris, Friedrich von Knaus in Austria and a Mr. Kratzenstein in St. Petersburg demonstrated their speaking machines. Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen devised a sort of talking pipe-organ (1769-91), which was improved upon by the British electrical pioneer Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-75), but Faberís "Euphonia" was deemed much better.

We stumbled upon the "Euphonia" story in The Liberal of Richmond Hill, Ontario, June 17, 1886 (2), describing the demonstration of an apparatus mounted on a gilt table, involving a bellows for lungs, an artificial larynx, teeth, a tongue and moving lips of black India rubber mounted in a face mask, controlled by a keyboard and able to say "mama", "papa" and an assortment of female names.

"The Marvelous Talkng Machine": Probably the second Prof. Faber (husband of Joseph Seniorís niece) at the keyboard, operating the "Euphonia".
("Illustrated History of Wild Animals and Other Curiosities Contained in P.T. Barnumís Great Travelling Worldís Fair...." by William C. Crum, Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, New York, 1874)

At the end of the show, the "Euphonia" said, in a doleful, monotonous tone, "Iím very tired. Thank you, gentlemen. Adieu". This report is anachronistic because, by 1886, Edisonís Perfected Phonograph had been demonstrated and improved and the "Euphonia" and all of its bits and pieces had disappeared from history.

The story is sketchy, with variants, but it looks as if Joseph Faber (c. 1800 - 1860s) was born at Freiburg im Breisgau near the Black Forest, studied at the Polytechnic in Vienna, most interested in mathematics, astronomy and music. While convalescing from an illness, doing woodcarving, he read von Kempelenís work (3), went back home and spent years building his prototype of the speaking machine. He showed it in Vienna in 1840 and to the King of Bavaria in 1841 (4), but it excited little interest. He emigrated to the United States (5), showed his invention in New York City in 1844 (6) and then in Philadelphia, where scientist and Director of the U.S. Mint Robert M. Patterson saw it and was impressed. Patterson even spoke about the machine to the American Philosophical Society in May, 1844 and tried to raise financial backing for Faber (6) but, discouraged, Faber destroyed his machine. Patterson then accompanied fellow-scientist Joseph Henry to Faberís workshop where he was re-assembling his talking automaton, this time with a female face. Henry was greatly impressed, thought it superior to Wheatstoneís talking figure (7) and encouraged Faber to demonstrate its capabilities at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia in December, 1845. That showing was another failure.

A photographer from the Mathew Brady studio, possibly Mathewís nephew, captured an image of Joseph Faberís "Euphonia" at Barnumís Museum in New York, circa 1860.

Around this time, Phineas T. Barnum, looking for a fresh novelty, named the speaking automaton "Euphonia" and took Faber to London (6, 9, 10), where he showed the machine at the Egyptian Hall in 1846. The "Euphonia" got the admiration of the Duke of Wellington and satirizing by Thackeray in Punch (11). Thackeray opined that assistants could henceforth key-out pastorsí weekly sermons for the congregations and that Scottish parliamentariansí speeches could finally be understood through the "Euphonia". Joseph Henry and later Faber conjectured connecting a "Euphonia" at either end of Samuel Morseís marvel to give the world a talking telegraph. It turns out that Melville Bell also saw the "Euphonia" in London and that later influenced Melville and his son Alexander Graham in their work on speech synthesis.

The "Euphonia" actually worked. Witnesses said that it had a "hoarse, sepulchral voice...as if from the depths of a tomb" and some thought that there had to be a small person hidden somewhere inside it. In London, the "Euphonia" sang "God Save the Queen" in its other-worldly flat voice. The Illustrated London News was most impressed (10), reporting that "The automaton is figured like a Turk, the size of life, and of kit-cat proportions (i.e. half-length portrait), reclining against some pillows. Every portion of the machine is, however, thrown open to the inspection of the company, and its framework is moved about the room". They noted that, since Faber was a German, "the figure converses more fluently in that language than in our own, but it is equally capable of speaking French, English, Latin, Greek, and even whispering, laughing and singing".

People remarked that they could even feel the breath of the "Euphonia" emanating from the India rubber lips set into a "stoney-eyed" mask of a female face, but that was because the basic driver of the apparatus was a large bellows operated by a foot-pedal. The compressed air was driven through a collection of reeds, whistles and whoopie-cushion-type resonators, modified by various shutters and baffles, and these were controlled individually or in concert by a board of 16 or 17 keys or levers.

Inventor Joseph Faber Senior, operating his speaking automaton from the keyboard like an organ. The early model was arranged to look like the face and torso of a Turk, a reference to another of Baron Wolfgang von Kempelenís contraptions, a famous chess-playing figure. The latter was a hoax, so the public was very suspicious of Faberís machine, looking for a person hidden in the open framework or a speaking tube through the floor.
("Illustrated London NewsĒ, August 1846)

The 16 or 17 elemental sounds could be combined to sound out words and phrases. The Liberal revealed that "the letters represented on the keyboard were A, O, U, I, E, L, R, W, F, S, Sh, B, G, and these were declared by the professor to be all that was necessary, with the judicious opening and closing of the rubber lips to produce all combinations of sounds known to the phonetic economy" (2). The speaking was, not surprisingly, slow and deliberate.

Faber was described as a sad-faced be-spectacled man, gloomy and taciturn, dressed in respectable well-worn clothes that bore signs of the workshop....not too clean, and his hair and beard "sadly wanted the attention of a barber" (9).

After taking Faber to London for the Egyptian Hall exhibition, Barnum showed it at his American Museum of curiosities in New York City, where Mathew Bradyís studio photographed it, c. 1860, and later in his touring circus. Faberís talking machine was still being shown in Barnumís Circus when it played the Exhibition Grounds on Grenville Street in Toronto in August 1874. The Toronto Mail (12) noted large crowds around the machine, but observed that it must have had a cold or a dislocated jaw because all of its words sounded monotonous and similar.

A retrospective in The London Times in 1880 (4), said that Faber worked on his apparatus from 1815 to 1841, latterly with his nephew Joseph Faber, demonstrated it to the King of Bavaria and then died (by suicide in the 1850s or 1860s), bequeathing it to his nephew. Altick said that it was the husband of Faberís niece who toured with the "Euphonia", calling himself Professor Faber (13).

The 1846 "Punch" cartoon, showing the radical Tory MP Lord George Bentinck, who had previously spoken very little in Parliament, making the "Euphonia" finally address the House for him, though still through Benjamin Disraeliís face.

In 1887, The New York Times reported that Professor Faberís wife, Mrs. Mary Faber who had operated the keyboard in years of touring, threatened with eviction, attempted suicide in her New York City apartment by taking the insecticide Paris Green (14). Drifting in and out of consciousness, she indicated a satchel containing the "Euphonia" and wanted it sold to pay the rent. It turns out, however, that this Mary Faber was 45 years old in 1887, too young to be Joseph Sr.ís wife, so it is not clear whether this Mrs. Mary Faber was Joseph Seniorís wife or his niece.

Around 1863, perhaps reminded of the "Euphonia", phoneticist Melville Bell took young Alexander Graham to meet Wheatstone, who showed the Bells his contraption, and A.G. and his brother built their own speaking automaton. It had nasal cavities, a larynx, a soft palate and a laterally articulating tongue. This experiment in speech mechanics and his interest in teaching the deaf eventually led to A.G.ís shifting from mechanical to electrical technology, to his "harmonic telegraph"and thence to the telephone.

Faberís "Euphonia" did not excite much interest among theologians but the clergy flocked to see and hear the results of Edisonís further shifting of technology, continuing to be shocked and appalled that a mortal aspired to re-create a basic element of the sacred human spirit and violate the Divine Order. To be fair, however, it was Faberís machine that could synthesize the human voice, whereas Edisonís tin-foil impious contraption would speak only if addressed first, and then quite firmly.

General Sources

  1. Quincy, Illinois Herald, February 9, 1844.
  2. "A Talking Machine" in The Liberal of Richmond Hill, Ontario, June 17, 1886, p. 6.
  3. Kempelen, Baron Wolfgang Ritter von, "On the Mechanism of Human Speech", Vienna, 1791.
  4. "Talking Machine", London Times, February 12, 1880.
  5. "Biography of Joseph Faber Senior, Inventor of the 'Euphonia' Talking Machine, in Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 094.
  6. "Talking Head" by David Lindsay in The Magazine of Invention, vol.12 #3, Winter 1997, and Talking Head.
  7. "Joseph Henry and the Telephone" in The Joseph Henry Papers Project by Frank Rives Millikan.
  8. "Joseph Faber and the Amazing Talking Machine', in The Peerless Prodigies of P.T. Barnum".
  9. "Joseph Faber's Talking Euphonia"in Irrational Geographic.
  10. "The Euphonia, or Speaking Automaton", Illustrated London News, July 25, 1846, p. 59.
  11. "The Speaking Machine", attrib to Thackeray, Punch, July-Dec. 1846, p. 64.
  12. "Barnum's Circus", The Toronto Mail, August 4, 1874, p. 4.
  13. "Shows of London" by Richard D. Altick (Harvard Univ. Press, 1978, p. 356).
  14. "The Talking Machine Was There", The New York Times, July 24, 1887, page 9 - 6.

Thanks to Brenda Hicock, M.L.I.S. City of Vaughan Archives.