First International Workshop on the History of Speech Communication Research (HSCR 2015)

Dresden, Germany
September 4-5, 2015

The History of Talking Heads: the Trick and the Research

Massimo Pettorino

University of Naples L’Orientale, Italy

This study reviews the history of the attempts to build talking statues or talking heads. The study highlights the two paths that have been followed over the centuries: the “voice transport” and the “artificial voice”. The first case was ultimately a trick, because the voice was actually produced by a hidden subject and transported through an artifice to a fake head, so that the voice appeared to come out of the mouth of the statue. The other path, that of research, tried to imitate the human phonation apparatus to produce sequences of sounds in some way similar to those that make up the speech chain. In retracing this long history, I will focus on some examples of the first and second paths. The first, beginning with the oracles of the Chaldean priests and the oracle of Orpheus in the Lesbos island, will lead us to examine the Android built by Albertus Magnus in the 13th century. Its functioning will be explained many years later, in the 17th century, by a German Jesuit priest and scholar, Athanasius Kircher. The other path, aimed at producing a real talking machine, begins in the first century AD in Egypt, through the work of Hero of Alexandria; it then continues in Spain in the 10th century thanks to the ability of an expert manufacturer of hydraulic organs, Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II in the year 1000. The statue of Gerbert could produce two distinct sounds thanks to the air escaping by the force of heated water through one of two different cavities. One of the two sounds was quite high in frequency, and was used for an affirmative answer (“etiam”), the other was rather low and was used for a negative answer (“non”). I will then examine the case of the talking heads built by a French abbot, the Abbot Mical, in 1783. An examination of the testimonies regarding this extraordinary automaton will help us reconstruct its history. Which path has led to the production of the present-day synthesized speech? The trick or the research? We will try to answer this question.

Full Paper

Bibliographic reference.  Pettorino, Massimo (2015): "The history of talking heads: the trick and the research", In HSCR-2015, 30-41.