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Texas Instruments’ Speak and Spell (ieee.org)
103 points by sohkamyung 17 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments

As it turns out, my uncle, Ralph Dosher, was the executive in charge of green-lighting the Speak-n-Spell. Before he died, I had the pleasure of talking with him about the Speak 'n Spell and TI LOGO as he was preparing a memoir of his 50+ years at GSI/TI.

According to my uncle's notes, this story is mostly true, but misses some of the nuances.

First, you have to remember that corporate culture in TI in the mid-70s was not at all like what is common in Sili Valley today. TI in the mid-70s was considerably more "locked down" than modern, small, nimble companies.

To say that management saw little value in it is not exactly correct. It's probably more fair to say they weren't ready to even think about new ideas. I would not be surprised to learn that TI at the time made year-long plans on January 2nd and didn't stop to think about new ideas until December 30th.

But there was definitely interest in educational devices among TI execs. I know my mother (an Educational Psychologist) frequently talked with my uncle (Exec in charge of Educational Initiatives) about such a project for several years before the release of the Speak-n-Spell after extended contact with Seymour Papert, Cynthia Solomon and Logo.

What is true is TI wasn't sure what product they should make and Breedlove, et al. did rather gobsmack TI management when it was presented to them. (The story I heard was the concept was nearly fully developed when presented.)

The problem was that their immediate management, who were busy building calculators, did not know how the SnS fit into the calculator line. The story my uncle recounted was there was a process in place to make sure good ideas made it to management; but it did take a while. Either Breedlove or Wiggens supposedly pulled a corporate social faux pas by trying to leap-frog over the established process.

To our modern silicon valley sensitivities, this would be an obvious thing to do: if you find you're blocked, you just go around the blockage. But TI in the mid-70s was still culturally staid.

Complicating matters further, the engineering team was in Lubbock and the execs they needed to talk to were in Dallas.

A better way of putting this is Breedlove, et al. were way ahead of their immediate management in Lubbock and it took a while for them to figure out who in Dallas they needed to talk to. Saying exec management didn't think it should be produced is a bit simplistic.

I was the editor of that story at Spectrum. Your notes might be very valuable to future writers on that seminal project. If you ever wish to talk about them I can be reached at g dot zorpette at ieee dot org. Thanks for taking the time to share your recollections here.

My cousin is the one with the real trove of notes. Let me get her your email address.

Also, if you're interested in the development of the SnS and the challenges the dev team had, check out this page as well: https://semiwiki.com/wally-rhines/7633-speak-n-spell/

> Wiggins and Brantingham specified and designed the chip entirely by themselves and without any approvals from anyone, according to Frantz. TI management had neglected to fit the project into any particular reporting structure, and that suited the four team members just fine. In Frantz’s estimation, the lack of “help” from management gave Wiggins and Brantingham the freedom they needed to figure out a successful design.

I am dying to know what was learned internally at TI after this regarding project oversight. I think we all KNOW that the way get things done is hand out the tools and get the hell out of the way. This seems to be the message at Skunk Works, Bell labs, Xerox PARC etc.

But when the pressure is on, your Big Corp is GOING to lay on the product, tech, marketing, etc etc governance, replete with timelines, KPIs, budgeting, accounts, timesheets, yada yada. This kills the project.

I really wish my experience were that cut and dry. This strategy seems to me to depend super strongly on the quality of the developers/engineers, and their commitment to getting work done (c.f. your examples: Skunk Works, Bell Labs, PARC, etc -- I really wish I worked in such an environment!).

There are people who are good at seeming busy, but who wildly overestimate, take every opportunity to get bogged down on some trivial obstacle, chronically misunderstand objectives/values, can't consistently put three words in a row correctly, and just seem in general to be the weak link; those people need to be managed.

It's also really interesting the effect of management to drive timelines and innovation. If you look at the Apollo program, there was a ton of innovation driven by a incredibly fast design/launch cycle. Well managed timelines and goals can have a focusing effect (point the innovators in the most effective direction and give them the tools). The issue is when meeting the timelines and goals BECOMES the measure, rather than measuring effect. At that point it's just teaching the test and micromanaging.

That's an extreme and useful counterexample. Did anyone distill Apollo project management lessons learned into something we can apply now?

Of course. Here are couple interesting papers by NASA leadership from the Apollo era (PDF warning):



Yes. I think you're seeing something of a survivor bias here. For every one of an example of a true and successful skunkworks project--and this one is obviously much different in scope than skunkworks aviation projects--there are tons of counterexamples.

A lot of times there's a group of engineers who don't agree with whatever decision and go off and do what they want to do instead. I'm guessing when that happens, most of the time it never amounts to anything and never sees the light of day.

Do they?

Managed within or managed out, but I think yes.

Unless you were alive during that time, it's hard to relate to how technologically impressive this gadget was when it came out. It was not only beyond expectations of what a toy could do, it was beyond expectations of what any product could do.

As I recall, people had no experience with speech synthesis in their everyday lives. There were no automated phone systems with a computer voice you called into. This technology was something you might think could be done in a lab somewhere, but not everyone would have necessarily even thought that.

And suddenly there was this device -- a child's toy no less -- that was compact and portable and battery powered, and it was talking to you. Interactively, which also added to the novelty because most people didn't have home computers and many didn't use a computer at work at all either.

I'm 41, I frequently have to remind myself of just how far tech has come in just the time I've been alive, especially when dealing with bewildered older people.

My first computer, the ZX Spectrum, was simple enough that we assembled and programmed a roughly equivalent machine from scratch on breadboard in my first year at uni.

I recently resurrected my old Big Track robot/tank toy from my dads loft for my son to play with. Its over 30 years old, and has less computing power than an electric window controller, but back then it was the most futuristic thing I could imagine. My boy absolutely loves it. Its just the right level of sophistication for a 5yo, although I need to stick a volume control on it :)

I had one of these as a kid. I opened it up and used wires to connect different chips, eventually finding one that "made it talk funny". Unfortunately the plastic casing was not user serviceable and had a long discussion with the parents who thought I was troubled. Thankfully they understood and took it as a sign to do the best they could to make electronics and computers available to me. Many trips to radio shack were the result.

My friend used to be into "bending" talking toys this way. My favorite was the bent Furbys they took the "fur" off of: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srf1oreJ_Vo

Speak and Spell is the first educational toy I remember using as a child. There was also a Speak & Math that I was lucky enough to own too.

In hindsight, it was probably my first introduction to basic computing and programming. I now run a software development company.

The guys who decided to pursue the creation of these devices positively impacted the lives of so many children. What a lovely story.

I had 3 of these (Speak & Spell, Speak & Math, and Speak & Read). I can still hear the voice of the Speak & Math game "Greater than, less than"

"That is incorrect, the correct spelling is..."

I attribute my early vocabulary and spelling to this little machine. Awesome, just awesome history.

Educational toys today are really tepid about telling a kid he's wrong. I heard a VTech toy of some sort respond to a wrong answer with something like "Great job, try again!"

Man, I still drop this line as a bad joke into conversations sometimes. I remember it saying "That is incorrect" (it sounded so final!), "The correct spelling of <WORD> is ...". The way that it would say each word was always preceded by a slight pause and looking back now I'd imagine it was due to having to find the word data and load it. Back then I simply thought the damn thing was mocking me. I loved it. Mine had a flat face though, so it must have been a later model.

P-O-T-S-CHHCKUMPH-A-T-O Potato.. top notch.

I cant look at a potato without that machines voice in my head

I can’t think about the word for a small land mass in the ocean without saying “spell ISLE meaning island”

Which now that I typed it up looks like it should be pronounced “is-Lee”

For those who want to know more about the Speak N Spell, check out this book, "The Speak N Spell" by Gene Frantz [1]

[1] https://cnx.org/contents/swFM2W46@5.12:6sbZNcLi@4/Speak-N-Sp...

Very fond memories of using this as a child... On top of that I'm sure it still works today just as well as it did back then. Something to be said about purpose built ICs.

A friend of mine had one of those. Oh what fun we had making it carefully enunciate rude words and phrases lol

Ah, the machine penguins use to talk to humans. https://madagascar.fandom.com/wiki/Speak_and_Spell

a french electronician did some repair video


I hope you can enjoy beside the language "barriere"

"You are correct, now spell YACHT"

How I miss the 80's.

I'm a little bit disappointed that they didn't mention the critical role played by Speak & Spell in the movie "E.T.":


Has anybody used one recently with their children?

I was considering purchasing a ‘new’ model as a gift.

I used to circuit-bend Speak & Spell / Speak & Math and my kids still play with one or two I have kicking around. On the one hand it sounds cool, and for most things it isn't unintelligible. On the other, the speech synthesis does have its limitations and foibles. I've been playing with then since I was a kid and I still can't make it out some of the time. If my kids can't understand it they don't seem bothered by it. I'd say that even with those limitations it's still moderately educational insofar as alphabet and basic vocabulary practice are concerned, but the word list is fairly limited.

On the physical side I still enjoy the simplicity of the device. It's tactile in ways that touchscreens aren't, even if you have the one with the membrane keyboard. My kids can pick it up, turn it on, and start typing letters and get letter & words read aloud, no tutorial or parent permission required. I love that it's an appliance, I don't have to worry about in-app purchases, ads, and all the other modern consumerist trappings.

It's not perfect and not deep, but then not everything needs to be. Sometimes good enough can be great.

I poked at one of the “new” models at the store and, to my ears, it sounds nothing like the original. They might have sampled the phonemes off the original chip.

Yes, I gave one to my son when he was 5 years old. He's still playing with it even now he's 10. I bought it used from an eBay seller. They're remarkably physically robust, even after all these years, it's taken plenty of knocks and tumbles. Unlike a tablet or computer, it's also very much offline so we felt completely comfortable letting him use it unattended.

I'd be curious to know if the TI implementation of LPC in chip form led to, or influenced, the creation of a Federal Standard for Voice Coding, FS-1015, which was used in some military radios at the time.

My father brought me one of these when he worked at TI, along with my first computer, a TI 99/4A. I might even still have them in storage.

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