As the first educational toy to utilize speech that wasn’t pre-recorded to a tape or phonograph, the Texas Instruments’ Speak & Spell was groundbreaking, along with its brethren, Speak & Read and Speak & Math. In This Week in Tech History, Abbey and Tyler talk about the implications it had for future toys, its importance to the educational tech movement, and why Tyler’s Speak & Spell seemed to be stuck at Spell.
(THE FRONTIER THEME PLAYS)
How’s your week going?
Very busy. Very busy. And obviously, you know, we’re doing some hiring, so there’s like, a lot of conversations, and interviews, and more than the normal sort of like, standard workload.
And it’s a short week to boot, so like…
You always think you have more time in a short week.
Yes <laugh>, but you don’t.
I woke up today really excited about the “twos” of things that I had to do for the podcast, and I was like, it’s Twos-day. (Tyler” <Laugh>.) My pun didn’t work. (Tyler: Aw.) It’s Wednesday. Yeah.
It’s Tuesday in your heart. It’s okay.
It is. We’ll just skip over a different day, and then it’ll be Friday.
Yeah. We’ll just work ‘til Thursday this week. You’re done.
Voice actor, via Speak & Spell commercial (00:51):
(COMMERCIAL AUDIO AND PLAYFUL MUSIC PLAYS) He’s learning spelling with Texas Instruments’s Speak & Spell.
Speak & Spell robotic voice, via Speak & Spell commercial (00:55):
Spell “rain”. R-A-I-N. That is correct.
Voice actor (01:00):
She’s teaching her brother with Speak & Spell.
Speak & Spell robotic voice (01:03):
H.E.R. That is right.
Voice actor (01:06):
They’re learning new words with Speak & Spell, but don’t tell them they’re learning. (CHILDREN LAUGHING) They just think they’re having fun. Speak & Spell for words. Speak & Read for stories. Speak & Math for numbers. From Texas Instruments: they make learning fun.
Tyler, we are here to talk about Speak & Spell. Did you ever have one of these when you were a kid?
Absolutely, yes. I feel like any, yeah, how can you forget? You know, red, big handle at the top, (Abbey: Yeah.) digital letters.
It sounded like it was possessed.
Okay, so actually, I will admit, My childhood memories of this, do not remember it speaking. I literally just remember that you could like, spell things into it. (Abbey: But it’s the Speak & Spell.) So I feel like I missed…It was, it was <laugh>.
<Laugh>. Yours didn’t speak; it just spelled?
It probably did, and I just, you know, that part of my brain isn’t developed enough to retain memory of that.
Maybe it was like, the voice that it admitted was so terrifying that you chose to block it out.
Yeah, that very well could be
I remember there was a comedian that had a joke that was something about Speak & Spell, and he was like, “You don’t need to speak like the devil.”
<Laugh>. Yes. See, now I’m really sad that I, like, I’m missing out on that whole shared experience of the “speak” of the Speak & Spell, and I just, I don’t remember.
Here’s my Bill request for the episode, is to put it in, so that when this goes live, you can hear it. And so can everyone else. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES IN)
Dane Cook, via live performance (02:43):
(LIVE PERFORMANCE AUDIO FADES IN) I always like to tell people a little about myself. One thing is, when I was a little kid, I was a terrible speller. I could not spell. So my mom and dad tried to help me out. They got me a little helper, a little friend, a little aid. They got me a little red box called Speak & Spell. (AUDIENCE CHEERS) You remember this thing? Speak & Spell. Yeah. No, no, no, no, no, no. They shouldn’t have called it Speak & Spell. What they should have called it, Speak like the Devil. Remember the voice? A-E-I-O-U <robotic voice>. (AUDIENCE LAUGHS AND CHEERS) (LIVE PERFORMANCE AUDIO STOPS)
(RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC RESUMES) On June 11th, 1978, Texas Instruments, maker of the notable TI-80 series calculators we were all forced to buy in high school, introduced the Speak & Spell talking educational toy for children. The device features the first electronic duplication of the human voice on a single chip of silicon. Speak & Spell utilize linear predictive coding to formulate a mathematical model of the human vocal tract and predicts speech, based on previous input. It transformed how digital information was processed through a filter into synthetic speech and can store more than a hundred seconds of linguistic sounds. Which I feel like doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re talking about, one, the fact that it’s 1978, and two, that it was on a chip small enough to like, put into a kid’s toy. It’s pretty cool.
I mean, and that’s like, a minute and a half. Like that’s not, I mean, again, it’s different. But you think about today, like, the amount of data like, a voice recording of a hundred seconds is, is like substantial.
You can’t like, send a single hundred second video through a text message.
Exactly, yeah. That’s what we mean. Yeah.
So the development of the Speak & Spell began in 1976 with an initial budget of $25,000, which is $128,580 in today’s money. It was created by a small team of engineers, who were led by a man named Paul Breedlove. The completed proof version of the first console utilized solid state speech technology, which was a kind of similar to how numbers were stored in calculators at the time. Additional purchase cartridges, called expansion modules, could be inserted through the battery receptacle to provide new solid state libraries, which then gave you new games. It was the first time an educational toy utilized speech that was not recorded on tape or phonograph. It was also developed in conjunction with its clearly less popular brethren and sistren, Speak & Read and Speak & Math. It was named in a milestone in 1999 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and was repopped like, four years ago by a company that bought the name. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES OUT)
So you mentioned that they had basically additional like, storage cartridges that you could buy. (Abbey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) So it’s like today, specifically, I think about like, video game consoles, right? You can buy additional storage, like, additional hard drives that you plug in. “Oh, I’m outta space. I need more games.” Was this like, the first hardware toy, like, consumer hardware that like, “Hey, go buy more storage. You know, those are your add-ons.” I don’t know.
That’s a good question. When did Atari come out? ‘Cause you could buy Atari cartridges. I feel like it had to be out at the same time.
That’s true. Yeah, yeah. I’m sure there’s gonna be people who remember the date, and I would guess Atari was first, if it’s ‘78. I feel like they might’ve been a little bit before that, but I could be wrong.
We could ask the magic cancer box. The 2600 came out in 1977, so…
There you go.
Just a year earlier. Regardless of which game system it was like, that was really groundbreaking at that time. (Tyler: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) One, to be able to store sound on a silicon chip like that, that wasn’t pre-recorded, (Tyler: Yeah.) and two, you know, just like, being able to change out cartridges, do all that kind of stuff. I feel like by the time we were interacting with it, we also had other toys that were kind of along those lines, since neither one of us were born in the ‘70s, but I wonder what they were like at that point.
Yeah. But it feels like an early pioneer of like, that monetization strategy, right? Of like, “Hey, buy more stuff to plug into your hardware, you know, for more use.” It’s interesting. You saw it with digital cameras, but those weren’t around obviously until later, you know, decades later.
I wonder how cool it was as a kid for that to be like, one of the first toys that you got to play with. Like, if one of your first educational toys, instead of like, spelling blocks and stuff like that. That would’ve been pretty…
Yeah, I’m sure. Yeah.
Yeah. Pretty mind blowing. (Tyler: Yeah.) I mean, especially, look at like, what kids have today. I’m sure you can obviously speak to this better than I can, not having kids, but like, you know, you can play these kinds of games with like, Alexa and Google Home, stuff like that. What kind of things do you think would be in this if it were reinvented, starting today?
I feel like today with the, you know, the resurgence of, I mean not even resurgence, but the, just like, maturation of AI and the predictive, you know, language models that we have, you could do all sorts of like cool storytelling exercises or, you know, “Tell me about this,” or, you know, like, it could be interactive, right? Where it’s not just, “Here’s a prompt,” but like, how do you dialogue, because you know, you can dialogue (Abbey: Yeah.) ChatGPT. And so I feel like, you know, kids could have like, it’s almost weird. Like, you could have like a, you talk to it, you know, like, as a friend that has a conversation.
I wonder if it would be like, a combination of like, the Speak & Spell and the Speak & Read. Like, as you spell, you learn how to use the words appropriately in a sentence, and start building stories, and (Tyler: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) like, I guess just get more complex off of the bat.
Yeah. And then, you know, you harvest the best stories. Sell them as children’s books that parents hate and children love, because they’re written by five-year-olds <laugh>.
Yes <laugh>. But you still get to read ’em three days a week.
Yes. You still get to read them…every night…multiple times.
I feel like kids today would feel really constricted by the amount of words that the original one had.
But you know, like, it depends on age, right? Because when you’re a kid, like, you can’t appreciate the technology of it. You know, it’s just like, “Oh, this is like, what it does.” (Abbey: Yeah.) You don’t like, remember a before, you know? It’s like, I’ve noticed that with my kids with things like Facebook’s like, portal, right? Which is like, really neat in the way that it can like, track your movement, and how it can zoom in and out from, you know, like, when you’re like, FaceTime 2.0, sort of, right, the wide angle lens. But for kids, they’re just like, “Okay. Like, it’s cool,” but like, they don’t like, appreciate how like, before, that technology didn’t exist, you know? (Abbey: Yeah.) It is interesting how it’s like, you have to be older to appreciate like, the, you know, accomplishment that some of that like, technology is.
But the advancement it was for its time…(Tyler: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) Like, you know, I mean I got on the Internet for the first time with like, a clear Guess phone that you had to pull the thing off and like, actually type a number in. (Tyler: Yes.) I don’t think kids would put up with that. Do they know how to use a phone like that?
No. No. Or like, tell time on a non-digital clock like, analog, you know? (Abbey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) I feel like I’ve heard that that’s a skill that, I mean, which maybe isn’t even that necessary anymore. Like, maybe that’s valid, but feels like a necessary thing for me. But…
I wear a watch that has a like, a regular watch face, and I’ll still check my phone. (Tyler: Same.) Still check my phone and see what time it’s <laugh>.
Yeah, that’s habit, though. You can at least read the clock, you know, the face.
Yeah. I still write in cursive too.
I do a mix. It’s manuscript and cursive, ‘cause I’m lazy.
Yeah, I just don’t feel like lifting the pen, (Tyler: Exactly.) and there’s people like, “Why are you even writing things on paper?” (Tyler: <Laugh>.) Yeah <laugh>.
‘Cause it feels good, you know?
‘Cause I’m still a <unintelligible> at heart. Something that’s crazy to me is that, even by today’s standards, a $25,000 budget is like…(Tyler: Yeah.) That’s nothing.
That part is wild. Like, I mean, I don’t know, I really don’t know a lot about like, the hardware space today, but I would imagine that it’s like, impossible. So even if you took it in today’s dollars, what did you say? It was a hundred and like, 28K or something, right, adjusted for inflation, $118K last year <laugh>? (Abbey: <Laugh>. Yes.) Like, you can’t do anything that’s hardware related for that today, just with manufacturing costs, you know, your supply line, like, I just, I don’t know, but I’d have to guess that is…
That barely gets you a <emphasis> developer who would have the experience to do that.
I mean, yeah. Let alone, you might get some designs like, “Hey, here’s like, some drawings of like, what your hardware could be for $120K,” you know, like…(Abbey: Yeah <laugh>.) But definitely not even like, a prototype or that has any of the plastic now. Okay, to be fair, it’s Texas Instruments. They probably already have some of those resources established, right? So maybe it’s easier (Abbey: True, true.) for a small group and a company like that to go, “Hey, we can get these like, mocked up,” or something. But still not to take away, I don’t think anything is close to doable today for that.
I wonder if them being part of Texas Instruments was kind of what like, prompted the idea, since the information is stored on a chip the same way you would store information in a calculator. (Tyler: Sure.) I wonder how somebody made that leap between like, if we could do this with numbers, why couldn’t we do it with sounds?
Yeah. I mean I think that’s like, the interesting thing about, and, you know, some of the implied promise about, you know, big tech companies is like, when you have your own IP, when you take the time to develop the, you know, through lines of manufacturing and supply where it’s like, “Hey, we own this part of the process. We can control, you know, the resources on,” (Abbey: Yeah.) “that side, the physical side of things.” Like, it’s easy to go like, “Well, let’s try this. Like what about this?” But I do think that’s interesting, where you don’t see that often today, you know? It’s like you typically have companies that are just, “Hey, we do this thing with hardware,” (Abbey: Yeah.) or vice versa, right? Like, “We don’t touch the hardware, we just touch the software side of things.” I mean, Apple’s interesting, where they’ve been developing more of their control on the supply side, on manufacturing side, right, (Abbey: Yeah.) for the hardware. But it is interesting, and it’s also interesting to think that like, where is Texas instruments like, today, relative to popularity then, you know?
Smartphone market probably made them take a hit.
That’s the interesting thing is like, you know, I don’t know, but I would imagine they were like, considered very highly in terms of like, their technology at that time, and here we are, you know, four or five decades later and a whole set of new companies, right, basically, in that space, which is just really…like, it’s not long to, you know, have an ebb and a flow of somebody feels like they’re at the pinnacle of like tech advancement, (Abbey: Yeah.) which is just interesting.
Yeah. I would have to guess that like, if they’re still around, they’re doing like, a lot more like, scientifically-cured research towards technology.
Yeah, and maybe they’re like, doing great, right? It’s just more of like…
We’re minimally informed here, so…
<Laugh>. Yeah, minimally informed.
<Laugh>. Yeah. Do you have favorites of your kids’ educational toys, and do they have favorites that are different?
I would say we’re just now like, getting into that. I mean, unless you wanna talk like, books, then for sure. And there’s a discrepancy, right? Like, their favorite books are not my favorite books. Generally. (Abbey: <Laugh>.) Sometimes. And sometimes they can grow on you, right? But yeah, I mean I would say that like, that’s probably a common thing. I mean, I remember like, as a kid, you know, I’m sure some of my favorite toys were not like, things my parents wanted to do. I mean, you hear it all the time, right? Like, ah, I need to throw this toy away, ’cause I can’t stand to hear it play its thing again. You know? Like, that’s still true, for sure, today, you know? I mean, I remember one of my favorites was like, I was probably elementary school age, was like, one of those globes with all the different countries and like, the pen where you could touch it, and they would tell you like, something about like, the country, and you could do games where it would like, say a country, or say a state, or say a continent, and you had to like, see how fast, how many you could get. Like, I like those, I mean, ‘cause I’m competitive. Like, those I loved, and we did those a ton. You know, I’m sure my parents were probably like, “Oh my gosh, if I have to hear the little like, chime of” (Abbey: <Laugh>.) “‘New game!’ like, you know, one more time, I’ll destroy it.”
One that my sisters and I played a lot was Simon. (Tyler: Yeah.) Do you remember that game? Oh god. My parents had to hate that. The same four tones over, and over, and over. Try to recognize patterns and memorize ’em. Ugh. (Tyler: Yup.) We try to be like, we try to be good aunts and uncles and not give our niece and nephew like, super irritating things, (Tyler: That is appreciated.) but my mother-in-law, she’s like, “Here’s a drumset.”
<Laugh>. Those types of things are either like, really well received or they’re out of the house really quickly, generally.
No. Like, “This is actually a basement toy, and we’re not allowed in the basement, so…”
“Oh, sorry. Yeah, I think that toy got ruined last night. We had to throw it out.”
“There’s a tragic flood only in that corner of the room.”
I think it would be a cool gig to design educational toys for kids and kind of try and see where you can take technological advances and kind of apply them to like, an appropriate scheme for kids. There’s so much (Tyler: Yeah.) of the Internet, that’s not a good place for children. So to find the good parts of it and build, you know, like, good things would be pretty cool.
Yeah, I think that’ll be the trick more than anything is like, how do you gate the access to the powerful parts of that, right? Like, you can’t just, you know, you wanna chuck ChatGPT into a toy, WiFi enabled. You can’t just let that rip, right? So how do you like, and then make sure that it’s, you know, sturdy enough, and it’s like, protected that you can sell it and have it be, you know, responsibly used or what have you? And same thing with just like, anything that’s WiFi enabled, right? I mean, we’ve experienced that where, you know, sometimes we’ve even like, tried to find like, hey, books on tape, right? Like how do we, because, one, if you can find ’em, they’re typically not too expensive or, you know, library or something like that, right, versus the newer versions, which are like, digitally enhanced or enabled are also oftentimes like, pretty expensive.
Like I know that there’s like, an equivalent to that today, where you have to buy like, little, basically the same kind of deal. Like, “Hey, you want a new book? You have to buy the thing that plugs in. (Abbey: Yeah.) It’s all digital, but it’s like, you know, 150 bucks or something for like, the hardware, and then all the books you have to buy are additional, you know, whereas like, you can go to like, a used bookstore or something and find like, you know, book on tape for like, a dollar. (Abbey: Yeah.) You know, so it’s just interesting too to think about like, what are the, you know, benefits of it, versus not.
How do you build those guardrails, and are they even worth it if you can build those guardrails?
Yeah. Right. Because it’s not, you know, I’m sure it’s expensive and like, consumes resources to have to do that for a product, you know? (Abbey: Yeah.) Probably need more than $128K for that.
How much do you even have to set aside to pay somebody to do a job you don’t know exists? I think that that’ll be a (Tyler: More than that.) super like, interesting thing to watch as this kind of stuff grows, as AI and…you know, those tools that are like, they’re somewhat helpful for adults, but how do you mainstream that stuff to keep it…
Yeah. It’ll happen. Like, I’m confident that it’ll happen. (Abbey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) I just think, you know, we’re pretty early in that, so it’s not cost effective, probably, right, yet. But I think it will be right? Once you start to figure out how to, you know, containerize it and utilize it in different, sort of, you know, distinct ways that it’ll make its way into like, that consumer.
And then they’ll charge you an extra $5 a month to not get it hacked with curse words.
Yeah. What’s the 1978 equivalent to that? I don’t even know. Like, the kids who like, figure out how to, you know. (Abbey: Yeah.) “Tee hee, I did this or that.” Like you couldn’t…
I would be interested to see what the repop one was, since that was just done in the last few years. Not that I think it has any AI sort of capabilities, but like, if it was just built in the last three to four years, and it has (Tyler: Yeah.) internet WiFi capabilities, I’m sure somebody can do something atrocious with it. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN)
<Laugh>. Yeah, true. (Abbey: <Laugh>. Yeah.) There’s, yeah, there’s always somebody who will figure it out.
Well, on that note, let’s hope nobody does anything nefarious with the Speak & Spell. Let’s hope we can continue to keep kids learning and having fun. Bam.
Yeah. If it hasn’t happened on the Speak & Spell by now, they’re probably safe, but I’m sure it’s happened on day one (Abbey: <Laugh>. Yes, absolutely.) in ‘78 <laugh>.
Faith, via previous recording (22:30):
Thanks for listening to the Frontier Podcast, powered by Gun.io. We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @theFrontierPod, and we’ll see you next week.
(THE FRONTIER THEME ENDS)