Friday February 20, 2004

Sir Isaac Newton's Voder

In Robert Heinlein's Between Planets, one of the characters, a Venerian dragon who goes by the name "Sir Isaac Newton", is incapable of human speech. Instead, he manipulates the controls of a mechanical device strapped to his chest called a "voder" in order to speak English. The voder isn't a fictional device—it was an early speech synthesizer with manual controls.

Heinlein describes the voder like this (all page references are to the Scribner's edition):

Strapped to the "chest" of the creature, between its forelegs and immediately below and in reach of its handling tendrils, was a small box, a voder. The tendrils writhed over the keys and the Venerian answered him, via mechanical voder speech, rather than by whistling in his own language. "Greetings to you also, young sir. It is pleasant indeed, among strangers, to hear the sounds one heard in the egg." Don noted with delight that the outlander had a distinctly Cockney accent in the use of his machine. (p. 18)

The real-life voder was developed by researchers at Bell Labs in the 1930s and exhibited at the New York World's Fair. The voder operator used a set of keys and levers to control it. It could emit two kinds of source sounds (a pure tone or white noise) that the operator could modulate in an imitation of the human vocal tract. This control system allowed great flexibility in generating sounds. Unlike the kinds of voice synthesizers that are common today, which are usually text-to-speech systems, the voder was capable of producing continuously-varying intonations, accented speech, and non-human sounds, if the operator was skilled enough.

Don handed the instrument to the fidgeting tendrils and the dragon arranged it to suit him. He then ran over the keys as a check, producing sounds like frightened ducks. (p. 63)

Sir Isaac produced with his voder a sound exactly like a man clearing his throat. (p. 174)

He noticed that the dragon's speech was slow and somewhat slurred, as if his tentacles lacked their customary dexterity. Besides that, Sir Isaac's talk was more pedantic than ever and much more Cockney-flavored--the voder was mixing aspirates with abandon and turning the theta sound into 'f'; Don felt sure that the Earthman who had taught him to speak must have been born in earshot of Bow Bells. (p. 63)

There's a long WAV file of the voder in operation on this web site. It includes singing, French, and imitations of animal sounds. There's also a brief interview with the voder's operator in which she says it took her about a year of constant practice to learn how to operate it. (Shortly thereafter, the smug scientist butts in and starts answering questions for her. Hey, egghead, the expert was talking!). You can read more about the voder at these sites. I also stumbled across this site, which contains samples from many early speech synthesis systems—check out sample number 11, which includes a variant of the Alphabet Song I've never heard before.

Next time you're rereading Between Planets (I'm not the only one who rereads Heinlein's juvenile novels periodically, am I?), imagine the eerie electronic sound of the voder when you read Sir Isaac's lines for that 1950s science fiction feeling. It's better than having a theremin soundtrack!

[Aside: Between Planets contains lots of language-related goodness. Skimming through it for this post has inspired at least two more (about the "true speech" and "Shucks!"), but I'm going to write about some other stories first. For now, I'll only mention this quote, which is relevant to some posts on Language Log and Language Hat:

"You couldn't be wronger," he was answered. "More wrong, I mean..." (p. 87)

Heh. Unfortunately, the book doesn't specify how the "g" is pronounced.]

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Hey, I read that book as a child, and had almost completely forgotten it. I had no idea it was by Heinlein.

Posted by: Tim May at Feb 21, 2004 5:46:54 PM