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I have a character who is mute and they would need a voice synthesizer to assist them in their day-to-day communications (shopping, working, romancing, etc.). How could that work in a Victorian-Steampunk universe?

I'm after an assisting device that can be easily carried, with a similar functionality as the one Stephen Hawking used. Perhaps even with some prerecorded messages if possible.

Alchemy would be accepted as part of the process but preferably without electricity and batteries. The universe would be based on the late Victorian era, with low-ish steampunk elements. Like cars, but no airships.

I was thinking something similar to the phonograph but with pipes, valves and horns, but couldn't come up with anything plausible.

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    $\begingroup$ The spin-and-speak toy ("the cow says moo") does something similar to what you describe and it doesn't require electricity to work. $\endgroup$
    – Beefster
    Feb 3, 2021 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ This might also inspire a starting point for you: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… (dated 1769) $\endgroup$
    – Beefster
    Feb 3, 2021 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ A more practical solution would be for the character to carry a notepad / chalkboard for communicating with others along with a small pre-written placard identifying themselves as mute. $\endgroup$ Feb 3, 2021 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ (1) They had both electricity and batteries in the Victorian era. Early Victorian era. By the late Victorian era they had electric trams, electric underground trains and electric locomotives. (2) Phonographs were purely mechanical devives up to the mid 1920s. You would be surprised how loud a well-designed purely mechanical phonograph can be. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 3, 2021 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ Ad: these magnificant talking parrots are multilingual can lip sync, now promotion buy 1 get 1 free while stock lasts... $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Feb 4, 2021 at 1:56

9 Answers 9

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It might be plausible. One of the early speech synthesizers, the DECtalk, worked by playing back phonemes (fragments of word sounds) in a sequence controlled by the user. Most people will have heard it at least once since it's most famous user was the physicist Stephen Hawking. Googling for "DECtalk phoneme list" will show what sounds it could play and there are videos on YouTube that demonstrate how it worked.

One could imagine an Edison style phonograph cylinder, driven by clockwork and with a playback head that mechanically switched tracks to play back phonemes in sequence. Such a mechanism would be horrifically complicated in real life, but being in a steampunk universe papers over that a bit.

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    $\begingroup$ There were mechanical speech synthesizers going back to the 1930s. DECtalk is hardly "early." $\endgroup$
    – stix
    Feb 3, 2021 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps I should have said "early commercially available general purpose speech synthesizers that gained wide acceptance among the disabled" instead? However, that's quite a mouthful. $\endgroup$ Feb 3, 2021 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe you could use recordings of the top 1000 words or something instead, which would stretch credulity less (more time to play and not switch) and also give a character a fun manner of speaking. Dunno how it'd be controlled (same for phonemes) $\endgroup$ Feb 4, 2021 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ So, like a Mellotron? $\endgroup$
    – AndreKR
    Feb 4, 2021 at 21:23
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Very easily, in fact! -- with the GRAMMOGRAPH MARK III

Allow me introduce Steam Gadgets Ltd's latest concept in mechanical grammography:

Your character will be supplied with a functionally improved & entirely bespoke typewriter, looking something like this sleek standard model:

enter image description here

which will be connected via cables to a bank of clockwork reproducers, of which this is an early example:

enter image description here

The keyboard won't be the standard QWERTY or DVORAK types, and indeed, it won't even have a paper roller, carriage return mechanism, tabs or even the standard assortment of letters! Instead, it will consist of keys depicting various individual phonemes that might be expected to occur independently, as well as common syllables. E.g., the phoneme [t] won't occur independently because in English we don't (normally) just say "t"; but the phoneme [o] will, because it's an actual English word -- either "o", the vocative particle, or "oh", an interjection of surprise. On the other hand, syllables like [di], [ɛks] and [ɛnt] will be present on the keyboard in order to form words.

Functionally, the system will work like a tracker organ: your character will press a key which will pull on a mechanism that causes the correct grammophonic recording to sound. Rather than the crank to play system we find on the old dolls, this mechanism will make use of the pull-string with flywheel clockwork mechanism to allow for less delay and more rapid playback. Playing upon they keys with a sense of musical rhythm ought to provide for some level of fluid speech and a minimum of transposed syllables. No hunt-n-peck to make this device work!

In order to improve functionality, we have extended the upper & lower case shift positions (two levels on a standard machine, four on ours) to allow the user to access whole ranges of recordings of set phrases, common greetings & small talk, plus phrases expected to be used in her every day environment, such as commonly given orders or responses.

Our improved grammophones are quite small, with metal platters no more than two inches across. Each platter can hold up to 30 seconds of speech. Obviously, phonemes and syllables don't take quite so long to pronounce! Each platter can have as many as 16 separate tracks: which track the stylus engages being a function of the key pressed, as it is controlled by a spring mechanism.

The whole mechanism requires no electric devilry and no messy alchemical processes. The device weighs around 250 pounds and can be easily pushed along in our handsome oak or cherry trolley with cast iron frame and heavy duty casters. Just open the lid and lock the grammograph into the working position and your character will be ready to deliver lectures, address staff or communicate with any person as easily as they can talk, all with excellent tonal & speech quality!

enter image description here

Note: the Edison talking doll depicted actually uses a ring record made from wax or tin; but many fine antique dolls did in fact have "compact discs" inside, that could even be changed! The same technology can be found will into the 20th century with GI Joe and other talking dolls whose speeches are recorded on phonographic tapes rather than discs.

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Go full out steam punk on it:

Build a steam driven or compressed air driven voder. This is a video of the Bell Labs electronic voder in operation.

In place of the electronic oscillators, you use air pressure driven buzzers (for the buzz) or open orifices (for the hiss.)

In place of the filters, you have tuned resonance chambers.

Each key of your keyboard activates a specific buzzer or hiss orifice with its own resonance chamber.

You use multiple hissers/buzzers because trying to route the sounds to different resonance chambers would be complicated - imagine trying to use one "whistle" for all the pipes in a pipe organ, and switch the pipes to make it resonant. No fun at all.

Thinking about it, it is probably easiest to look at the voder as a specialized pipe organ. The keys of pipe organs were traditionally mechanical - you could look at how they work to see how to control your voder.

Maybe you could base it on a calliope style design. Those used steam power. It might be inconvenient to have to pull a wagon around to have a conversation though - or to have to stoke the fire when your "voice" gets weak.

A pipe organ style design will be rather large, no matter what you do. The size of the resonance chamber is dictated by the frequency (and hence the wavelength) of the sounds you need to reproduce. You might be able to "coil" the pipes like in some musical instruments, but I think that would make the resonance frequency range for each "pipe" too narrow.

Maybe you have a big, fancy voder built permanently into one wall of the living room and hold conversations "Captain Nemo" style by "playing" complex words on a big keyboard for fine nuances.

For "out and about" conversation (shopping and such) you have a smaller, suitcase sized voder that you pump with your feet. It has fewer pipes and keys, so it can't express things as clearly.


The voder is one of the few things I can think of that could have realistically been done during the age of steam if anyone had seen a need to do it.

Much of what you see in steam punk are things that couldn't have really been done with just steam power technology. The voder could have been done, and could still be done today if anyone wanted to try.

Helmholtz described work on producing vowel sounds with resonators back in 1863. Bell even says that if he had better understood what Helmholtz had written, then he (Bell) wouldn't have gone in the direction that led to the telephone - Bell apparently couldn't read German, and Helmholtz (as a German) wrote his stuff in German. Thus we ended up with electrical telephones for everyone instead of mechanical speaking machines for the handicapped.

You could have someone in the history of your world pick up Helmholtz's work on vowel sounds and generalize it to all speech sounds to develop the voder.


Steam calliopes were loud.

Imagine the circus comes to town, and tows a steam powered "voder calliope" through the streets announcing the circus and telling you where to find the big top and announcing all stars and attractions - with some poor schlub with thick earmuffs sitting on the back, playing the machine to make the announcements.

Then, with the invention of player pianos, someone encodes voder keys for the calliope and makes fully automatic (and loud) announcements without having to deafen the operator.

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Being a woman in the 19th century, as in most of history, sucked a lot. When they finally snapped, people said they were displaying the effects of hysteria, which was believed to be in part due to sexual deprivation. Some dude called Mortimer Granville invented the vibrator to resolve that[This is largely disputed nowadays]. Yes, this is very ****ed up.

Anyway, people found out that if you touch your throat with an activated vibrator, your voice comes out robotic, in a funny kinda way. Guess someone had to try it at some point. Then they found out that it allows (some) mute people to speak. This eventually led to the invention of the artificial larynx:

Initially, the pneumatic mechanical larynx was developed in the 1920s by Western Electric. It did not run on electricity, and was flawed in that it produced a strong voice. Electrolarynxes were introduced in the 1940s, at a time when esophageal speech was being promoted as the best course in speech recovery; however, since that technique is difficult to master, the electrolarynx became quite popular.

Pneumatic dil... er, vibrators are very steampunky and might fit into your world nicely.

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Is Wolfgang von Kempelen's Speaking machine steampunk enough? It doesn't even need steam to work.

And here you can see and hear the thing in action.

It can be made wearable and portable in a bagpipe style design.

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How about a compact speech synthesizing player piano? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6e2c0v4sBM, but it's also googleable.

I'm pretty sure early player pianos were wind-up models, so that fits with the steampunk theme. I have no clue if it can be made compact though.

It could be made with punch cards for simple words and phrases, to be fed into the machine. Or maybe premade punch cards that are fed through on button presses, like a jukebox but with one word per card. Not sure if punch cards would fit in the steampunk genre, but I think it would work. Make them out of copper plates if need be.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice find unmentionable one. Welcome to the site, take the tour and when you have a bit of spare time read-up in the help center about our ways. Enjoy worldbuilding. (Don't be surprised that your username turns up in the occasional question, you're quite a celebrity around here). $\endgroup$ Feb 4, 2021 at 15:45
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Burping

With practice it is possible to be reasonably fluent and certainly very understandable.

Burp Talking! From the Burping Queen!

The following video is of a man who has a technique for pumping a lot of air into his stomach and articulating quite long quotations.

Burping & Talking 8 long Life Quotes

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If you are looking for Steampunk, look no further than the guy, along with his colleague Bruce Sterling, launched the (sub)genre with his novel The Difference Engine, William Gibson. However, the voice synth is not in his Steampunk novel, but his debut novel (which created the Cyberpunk genre). In Villa Straylight, there sits the family terminal, a talking head, which is:

The most unusual thing Jimmy had managed to score on his swing through the archipelago was a head, an intricately worked bust, cloisonné over platinum, studded with seedpearls and lapis. Smith, sighing, had put down his pocket microscope and advised Jimmy to melt the thing down. It was contemporary, not an antique, and had no value to the collector. Jimmy laughed. The thing was a computer terminal, he said. It could talk. And not in a synth-voice, but with a beautiful arrangement of gears and miniature organ pipes. It was a baroque thing for anyone to have constructed, a perverse thing, because synth-voice chips cost next to nothing. It was a curiosity. Smith jacked the head into his computer and listened as the melodious, inhuman voice piped the figures of last year's tax return.

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  • $\begingroup$ "A computer terminal in the form of an intricately worked bust. It was commissioned by Tessier-Ashpool S.A., and a result of an unlikely collaboration between 2 Zurich artisans, a Parisian enamel specialist, a Dutch jeweler, and a Californian chip designer." See williamgibson.fandom.com/wiki/Talking_head $\endgroup$ Feb 4, 2021 at 20:27
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For a user with full function in at least one hand and thumb and one finger of the other, a common voder and some learning time will do the job. These devices became publicly known in the 1950s, but they took advantage of the fact that the speaking voice is, at its core, nothing but a combination of buzzing, hissing, and clicking sounds (linguists make distinctions of multiple clicks and at least a couple hisses, but speech is intelligible if these are glossed together).

The original voder was battery powered, but it could just as easily have run on clockwork. The controls were for volume and pitch (over a fairly narrow range) for the buzz, volume for the hiss, and simple actuaction for the click. By learning to operate this very simple machine in the manner of learning a musical instrument, the user could produce very clear speech with literally two thumbs and two fingers. The devices I've seen were held on straps like an accordion -- not due to weight and bulk (they were no bigger than a Swiss concertina, which needs no straps) but so the hands were free to operate the controls rather than hold the device.

I saw this on What's My Line or You Bet Your Life, episodes recorded in the late 1950s, I don't recall which -- but the device itself (in clockwork form) could have been built as early as the 17th century (mechanism no more complex than automata and complex striking clocks of that period).

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