My first experience with a computer wasn’t with a desktop machine or a game console. It was with an orange handheld device called a Texas Instruments Speak and Spell. Many Gen Xers born in the early 70s can probably say the same thing.
A wonder of 1980s technology
Speak and Spell certainly wasn’t a general purpose computer. The small orange 10″x7″ box It had a small digital screen, similar to what your digital clock or microwave oven would use, a membrane keyboard with the letters in alphabetical order, and a speaker. Using the wonders of speech synthesis, it would talk to you, giving you spelling drills in an artificial voice.
It was the perfect 1980s educational toy. Today my kids are fascinated with digital assistants that can recognize their speech and answer questions for them. In much the same way, when my generation were kids, we were fascinated with speech synthesizers. It sounded far less natural than Alexa or Siri. It couldn’t listen to us. But it taught us how to spell words and we could tell it was more intelligent than those talking toys that used a pull string to play back short recordings.
Besides all of that, it was available. It cost $50 at a time when a real computer cost $300 and needed $600 worth of additional equipment if you wanted to do anything with it. Schools often bought several. Parents who couldn’t afford a computer could afford a Speak and Spell. And since it was designed to teach us something, our parents were more willing to spend $50 on a Texas Instruments Speak and Spell than $1,000 on something we would probably use just to play video games.
We got one a couple of years before we got a Commodore computer. Most of my friends had one. When we tired of spelling drills, we figured out how to make Speak and Spell say rude or goofy things.
Who was Texas Instruments?
Today, Texas Instruments is a company that makes computer chips. They don’t get the glitzy publicity that Intel or AMD or Nvidia get. But TI’s chips show up in a lot of commercial-grade networking equipment and other electronic devices. And when you get into advanced math classes, you may use a graphing calculator made by TI to help you get through it.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, TI had a much higher profile. It made minicomputers that competed with IBM and DEC for business use. When a company called Computer Terminal Corporation accidentally invented the desktop computer, it sent its specifications for a microprocessor to two companies. Intel was one. TI was the other. Neither company delivered the chip on time so CTC didn’t use either chip. But TI actually had functioning silicon before Intel. The difference was Intel found another customer and TI didn’t. History might have worked out very differently if TI had had more aggressively marketed the TMC1795, its implementation of what became the Intel 8008. The 8008 led to the 8080 and 8085, which led to the seminal Intel 8086.
But TI made consumer electronics too. It made handheld calculators for everyday math, not just the kind of math a scientist or engineer would do. In the 1970s it made a device called the Little Professor to teach kids math. And in the 1970s, it was a pioneer in the field of speech synthesis, or making a computer talk.
TI also tried its hand at making home computers. Its TI-99/4A didn’t catch on. But the graphics and sound chips TI made for its home computer found their way into computers and game systems made by other companies.
How the Texas Instruments Speak and Spell came to be
Development began in 1976 with an initial budget of $25,000 and a small team of four: Paul Breedlove, Richard Wiggins, Larry Brantingham, and Gene Frantz. The console stored speech data as phonemes on 128-kilobit ROMs similarly to how TI’s calculators stored numbers, and used a simple 4-bit CPU and an early linear predictive coding digital signal processor chip to produce spoken words. The TMS1000 CPU, TMS5100 DSP, and the two ROM chips were the only integrated circuits on the Speak and Spell’s motherboard.
The design seems quaint today, but in the late 1970s, it was a significant achievement.
TI introduced it at the 1978 summer Consumer Electronics Show at a suggested retail price of $50. The unit included a cartridge slot, where expansion modules provided additional games.
The initial version had raised buttons. TI replaced it with a membrane keyboard in 1980. The membrane keyboard was cheaper and held up better under handling.
The Texas Instruments Speak and Spell in pop culture
In Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie E.T., the main character hacks together a contraption from household items, including a Speak and Spell, to “phone home,” making contact with his home planet. I don’t know if E.T. was the first to hack a Speak and Spell, but he certainly wasn’t the last. The English synth-pop band Depeche Mode titled its first studio album Speak and Spell. And in recent years, numerous musicians have either sampled the Speak and Spell’s speech or modified it and used it as an instrument.
Speak and Spell had a more immediate influence as well. It gave people the expectation that computers ought to be able to talk. TI released a speech synthesizer module for its home computer, the TI-99/4A, and that prompted other companies to do something similar. In the early 1980s, Chrysler used TI’s chips in its Electronic Voice Alert system, which let the car tell you things like your door was ajar.
The Speak and Spell’s days as a learning aid are long over, but its impact on pop culture remains. IEEE honored it in 2009 with its IEEE Milestone award. Some educators argue Speak and Spell wasn’t a particularly effective teaching tool. But if nothing else, it taught a generation not to be afraid of computers. That has to be worth something.
Loose working Texas Instruments Speak and Spell units today sell for between $30-$50 on Ebay, depending on condition. Boxed examples with paperwork tend to sell for more.