FUN FRIDAY: Speak and Spell

When you think about all the amazing tech we have today, it’s amazing how we used to get by without it. We used to be entertained by such simple things. Not just entertained — we thought they were amazing. One such device, which captivated a whole generation, was the Texas Instruments Speak & Spell.

This was high tech

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Talking toys weren’t new in the 1970s. Manufacturers had used tape loops or simple, phonograph-like devices for a couple of decades. But those devices were limited by the recordings they contained. This was a completely different kind of experience, and one that adults and children alike marveled at.

You probably don’t need the video above to remember the gargly voice that this toy had. But in its day, it was amazing. Texas Instruments was a dominant force in chip design back then, and they leveraged some of their early work in speech synthesis, combined with a rugged industrial design, to create a toy that asked kids to spell words. There were even cartridges which could be purchased separately. These provided more words and more opportunities for learning.

But that’s not all it did

Much to the chagrin of parents everywhere, there was nothing stopping you from spelling literally any word you could think of. There was a fairly robust hacker community that attempted to make the device say a lot of things it wasn’t designed to as well.

Needless to say, I was obsessed with this device back then. I wanted to understand how it did what it did. Looking at the Speak & Spell today, it seems very obvious how little real logic it uses, but back then I imagined it was possessed of real decision-making skills. I saw it as a link to computers like 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000. I imagined that in the future, we’d all be talking to our devices and they’d be talking to us. That’s pretty much true today.

The sad history of Speak & Spell (and TI)

The Speak & Spell had its moment. It was revised and evolved, and companion devices like Speak & Math came out over time. But, eventually it just sort of faded away. It’s come back as a nostalgia toy for adults a few times. The truth is, you can’t go home again. Speak & Spell is just part of the past.

Texas Instruments peaked in the early 1980s. In the days just before the IBM PC, several manufacturers tried to take over the world of personal computing. TI was one of them.

The TI-99/4 computer was easily a decade ahead of other devices when it launched. It sported a 13″ color monitor and full graphics capabilities. It had a cartridge slot for games and expansion as well as a programming language built in. But, it never caught on. Other, similar devices like the Atari 800 were less expensive and just as expandable. And of course, the entire world of computing soon shrank to Apple and IBM.

Texas Instruments shrank back into being a chip maker. They still make special purpose chips today, but they never took over the world the way that Intel did. It’s a shame, because I think for a short time in the 1970s they really were on the right track.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.