It was the brains in E.T.’s homemade communication device, but by the time the little alien with the (dying) heart of gold used it to phone home in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 flick, Texas Instruments’ Speak & Spell was already a star by transforming educational toys and digital technology.
No kid today freaks out over a product that encourages learning, but the Speak & Spell – unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1978 – was at the forefront of the computer age, so it was cool for a kid to actually own one of these mini “laptops.” Although simplistic by today’s standards – it would say a word out of 200 in its 128-kilobyte memory (they were the 200 commonly misspelled words), and you would spell it by typing on the keypad – the Speak & Spell demonstrated important technologies that we take for granted today, like an LCD screen, expandability through removable cartridges, and solid-state memory. It was a tremendous feat for technology at the time. (Later on, TI also released the Speak & Read and Speak & Math alongside the Speak & Spell.)
While the Speak & Spell wasn’t TI’s first education toy (that honor goes to the Little Professor, a calculator-like device that taught kids math), it was the first consumer product to use TI’s digital signal processor (DSP) technology for speech synthesis, and, according to TI, marked the first time a vocal tract had been duplicated electronically on a single silicon chip; without the need for tapes, the Speak & Spell could recall a word directly from memory.
In an interview with Vintage Computing and Gaming, Richard Wiggins – one of the four engineers who developed the product along with team leader Paul Breedlove, Gene Frantz, and Larry Brantingham – recalled there were initial doubts from TI’s management. But the product proved successful and became an important part of TI’s education business unit.
After various iterations and languages, the Speak & Spell made its final appearance in 1992 as the Super Speak & Spell. But the importance of the toy has found a home in many museums, including the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Today, musicians like Beck have implemented Speak & Spell units with circuit bending in their music, where the guts have been modified to create new sounds (although E.T. could be considered the first to manipulate the device).
This year, TI celebrated its 30th anniversary working with DSP technology. Without these processors we wouldn’t be enjoying the many consumer electronics that we can’t live without today. And we can trace it all back to a toy that taught us all how to talk.