Saturday 16 June 2018

Texas Instruments Speak & Spell (1978)

Speak & Spell circa 1978
Launched June 1978

If you were a child of the late 1970s or early 1980s, then the Texas Instruments Speak & Spell was one of those “must have” toys that every child wanted, even if they didn’t get it. Designed as a fun way to learn spelling, it also came with different cartridges for word games and it was available in several different languages.

Originally introduced in June 1978, the Speak & Spell is possibly primarily remembered for the somewhat tinny synthesised voice, but the Speak & Spell was actually a marvel of innovation in a number of ways and it stayed in production in one form or another until the early 1990s.

What made the Speak & Spell work was TI’s new speech synthesiser chip, the TMC0280 (alternatively named the TMS5100). Using a system called linear predictivecoding, TI managed to create a speech synthesis IC that was practical to roll out in low-cost applications running on contemporary 1970s hardware.

Outside, the Speak & Spell was about the size of an A4 pad, although it was fairly heavy at 474 grams (a little over a pound). Early versions had raised keys and a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) with a handy carrying handle on the top. Power was supplied by 4 C-cells or an A/C adapter. On the top was a carrying handle, and the whole thing was finished off in brightly coloured plastic.

It wasn’t the only product that TI made based on the same technology, the Speak & Read and Speak & Math also came in a similar package. Over the years the keyboard was replaced with a more childproof membrane keyboard which eventually changed from an alphabetic to QWERTY layout, the VFD display was replaced with an LCD and the handle moved from the top to the bottom to the top again. The last versions of the Speak & Spell were introduced in 1992.

Circuit Bent Speak & Spell
That really should have been the end of the story, but the Speak & Spell ended up having a weird afterlife. It turned out that the electronics in the device were easy to modify, and “circuit bent” versions appeared that could make new and interesting sounds, and the Speak & Spell found a home in electronic music in both modified and unmodified forms.

Prices vary depending on age and condition, but a good early one could set you back £100 or so. There are usually much cheaper, later ones too. Overall the Speak & Spell was a real technological marvel, and somehow we didn’t end up all speaking like robots. Whether or not it help to improve spelling overall is a matter for debbate.

Image credits:
Christian Riise Wagner via Flickr

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