Joseph Faber’s Marvelous Talking Machine, later called Euphonia, was not just another pretty face of the Victorian Era. Yes, she had a pretty face framed in long ringlet curls. Yes, she entertained the masses in numerous exhibits and shows including P.T. Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show On Earth. It was also true that her ghostly voice and vacant stare left many spectators cold and running for the exit. Still, her talent for simulating human voice inspired some great minds.
Although Joseph Faber is a little known name in history, the work of this obscure inventor had a profound effect on life as we know it today. By creating the first viable mechanical speech synthesizer, Faber provided a critical stepping-stone in Alexander Graham Bell’s work. Ultimately, that work led to the development of the telephone.
With near maniacal focus, Joseph Faber dedicated his life to simulating human speech. While there had been previous attempts since the 1200s, Faber’s was the first machine to come so close.
Joseph Faber’s talking machine was mounted on a gilt table that allowed spectators to examine its complex mechanisms from all angles. This proved that Euphonia was not a hoax like so many others that simply hid a human speaker under the table.
The photo above was taken by Mathew Brady’s studio during the time that P.T. Barnum showed it at his American Museum of curiosities in New York City, circa 1860. At the helm of Faber’s machine you can see the pretty, albeit “stony-eyed” female mask. The face had functional lips fashioned from India rubber, a tongue, rubber palate, lower jaw and cheeks. Faber’s later version also sported long corkscrew curls, presumably to increase her charm quotient.
Faber played his talking machine with a keyboard and foot-pedals, much like an organ. Its various mechanisms simulated the physical structures and processes of human speech. Because the basic driver of the machine was a large bellows, audiences even felt her “breath” as she spoke.
Faber manipulated seventeen levers that formed a keyboard. These “keys” drove compressed air through reeds, resonators, baffles and other apparatus to produce the basic phonemes of Romance languages.
According to David Lindsay in Madness In The Making: The Triumphant Rise and Untimely Fall Of America’s Show Inventors, Euphonia could pronounce any combination of vowels and consonants in any European language. With Faber or another skilled operator at her keyboard, she could even talk, sing, whisper and laugh.
Accounts of Joseph Faber’s life and his Marvelous Talking Machine are sketchy and often contradictory. That said, one of the more thorough accounts can be found in Antique Phonograph News. Faber was born around 1800 in Freiburg, near the Black Forest in Germany. He attended the Imperial-Royal Polytechnic Institute Vienna, where he studied mathematics, physics and music.
Recovering from a serious illness, he fell into a state of hypochondria, from which he could only free himself by undertaking mechanical tasks. So at first he applied himself to wood-carving. When he discovered Kempeler’s writing “On the Mechanism of Human Speech” (Vienna 1791), his goal changed to creating a talking machine.
Joseph Faber demonstrated his first attempt at a talking machine in Vienna in 1840. In 1841 he demonstrated to the King of Bavaria. With the reception less than exciting, he reportedly destroyed that first talking machine and moved to the United States.
He demonstrated his next attempt, The Marvelous Talking Machine, in 1844. This time, he attracted some attention in the scientific community, but no financial support. He reportedly destroyed that talking machine as well.
In 1845, Joseph Henry, the first Director of the Smithsonian Institute, visited Faber’s workshop to see the latest iteration of his invention. Himself a respected scientist, Henry was often called upon to determine if an invention was legitimate or a hoax. He was deeply impressed with Faber’s work, calling it a “wonderful invention” with the potential for many applications.
Early in December of that same year, Joseph Faber demonstrated at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia. Again, the showing did not garner the financial support he desperately needed.
In the summer of 1846, P.T. Barnum took Joseph Faber and what was now called “Euphonia” to the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. People paid one shilling each for entrance to see The Marvelous Talking Machine. The less than desirable response from the audience was documented in a piece written by John Hollingshead, a journalist and the London Theater Manager.
In History of Computers, you can read John Hollingshead’s first-person account of Joseph Faber’s performance at the Egyptian Hall seems unnecessarily mocking and cruel, however true it might have been.
“The exhibitor, Professor Faber, was a sad-faced man, dressed in respectable well-worn clothes that were soiled by contact with tools, wood, and machinery…The Professor was not too clean, and his hair and beard sadly wanted the attention of a barber…
The Professor, with a slight German accent, put his wonderful toy in motion…The keyboard, touched by the Professor, produced words which, slowly and deliberately in a hoarse sepulchral voice came from the mouth of the figure, as if from the depths of a tomb…
As a crowning display, the head sang a sepulchral version of “God save the Queen”, which suggested inevitably, God save the inventor.
Sadder and wiser I, and the few visitors, crept slowly from the place, leaving the Professor with his one and only treasure—his child of infinite labour and unmeasurable sorrow. He disappeared quietly from London, and took his marvel to the provinces, where it was even less appreciated.”
Joseph Faber’s talking machine drew an endorsement from the Duke of Wellington on that visit. The Times said it was “almost a duty of all who can afford to see it…and show their encouragement of genius.” Sadly, the public was not impressed with Euphonia. It seems that unlike the bird after which she was named, her voice and demeanor were just too creepy.
On the return home, P.T. Barnum made Euphonia part of his regular show for several decades to come. Even with that, Joseph Faber never found the financial success or accolades he desired.
Although specific details are lacking, in the 1860s he reportedly destroyed Euphonia and ended his own life.
According to Hollingshead:
“I had no doubt that he slept in the same room as the figure—his scientific Frankenstein monster—and I felt the secret influence of an idea that the two were destined to live and die together.
One day, in a dull matter-of-fact town—a town that could understand nothing but a Circus or a Jack Pudding—he destroyed himself and his figure. The world went on just the same, bestowing as little notice as it had on his exhibition. As a reward for this brutality, the world, thirty years afterwards, was presented with the phonograph.”
For all his mockery, even Hollingshead saw the importance of Faber’s work.
Joseph Faber did not live to witness the most important outcome of his life’s work. But one person who was deeply impressed by Euphonia in London in 1846 was Melville Bell, the father of Alexander Graham Bell.
According to the Joseph Henry Papers Project by Frank Rives Millikan, Belle Senior “was a student of acoustics with a special interest in speech production. He took his son, then sixteen, to see Charles Wheatstone’s talking machine (which he considered inferior to Faber’s). The visit had a profound effect on Bell Junior’s future work.
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