Speak & Spell (above) started life in 1976 with a development budget of $25,000. Texas Instruments (TI) were looking into speech synthesis at the time, and this was like a side-project. At the time, words were stored in a solid state format, such as the calculators of the day were storing numbers. Expansion Modules could be purchased which increased the vocabulary of solid state words, and also played a few word games too.
The unit later spawned two offspring in the form of Speak & Maths and Speak & Read. Speak & Spell was sold with regional variations in Europe, America, Canada, Australia and Japan.
Between its release and 1993, it was re-released twice under its original name. In 1982 a display-less Speak & Spell Compact was released and in 1989 the Super Speak & Spell hit the shops sporting an LCD instead of the VFD Display. Three more redesigns of the Super Speak & Spell came between 1989 and 1992 – the 1992 release being its last.
The regional variations I spoke about a little while ago had different speech libraries and games. These were released in 9 countries with 7 language variations.
Back to 1980. The Speak & Spell was redesigned with a ZX80-type membrane keyboard. The original had rounded buttons (much like coloured Smarties), which always reminded me of the sexy LED or VFD Rockwell Calculators of the 70s. In 1983 the faceplate graphics were updated, but nothing else.
In 1989 when the Super Speak & Spell hit the market, there were a number of changes. As stated previously, the VFD had gone (boo!) to be replaced by an LCD; the keyboard became a QWERTY one instead of the ABCDEF layout; the top handle was now placed curiously at the bottom, and the modules and module slot were altered to prevent backward compatibility.
It was changed yet again in 1990; they put the handle back at the top where it belonged, and the original cartridges could once more be used. The QWERTY keyboard and LCD remained, though.
The TMC0280 chip powered the original units, and was replaced later with the TMS5100. Chrysler later used a modified chip in their vehicles as part of their Electronic Voice Alert System.
Speech synthesis data for the spoken words were stored on a pair of 128 Kbit metal gate PMOS ROMs. 128 Kbit was, at the time, the largest capacity ROM available. Additional memory module cartridges could be interchangeably plugged into a slot in the battery compartment and selected via a button on the keyboard. The technique used to create the words was to have a professional speaker speak the words. The utterances were captured and processed using a mini-computer. Finally the data was hand edited to fix any voicing errors while reducing the data rate to an optimal level. The stored data were for the specific words and phrases used in the Speak & Spell. The data rate was about 1,000 bits per second.
Not entirely sure Kraftwerk actually used one. In a dim recess of my brain I seem to recall Florian Schneider approached TI about getting a speech chip to use on their Computerworld album. Depeche Mode named their debut LP after the device. Pet Shop Boys used one (Two Divided by Zero) as did OMD (Genetic Engineering). British Bubblegum synth-pop outfit Mogul used one extensively, and yours truly modified a scanned image of my own Speak & Spell to create the cover for Mogul’s Rotunda EP (below).
Spielberg had a Speak & Spell in E.T; there was one in Poltergeist III, and Toy Story I & II featured ‘Mr Spell’ as a character.
OTHER ‘SPEAK & …’ UNITS
Speak & Read (above) came out in 1980. Identical in shape to the Speak & Spell, albeit with different game functions and different colour scheme.
Speak & Maths (above) also came out in 1980. It sported a grey finish here in the UK (although it was an American model) and it had different keyboard layout and different games. A Super Speak & Maths came out ten years later with a drastic redesign similar to the Super Speak & Spell. It was called ‘Speak & Math’ in America.
Speak & Music (above). I was lucky enough to have one of these. I was in my 30s of course, because they were completely beyond my financial reach back in the day. It sported a membrane music keyboard which reminded me of another long-gone jewel in the form of the EDP Wasp Synthesizer. The Speak & Music had a portrait orientation, was blue in colour and allowed free play plus memory-based games. There was no display of any kind.
I’ve owned all the Speak & range in the past, with the exception of the Super Speak & Spell. They are just tremendous fun. And despite a lifetime of ripping things apart and modifying them, I’ve never dared to deface any of them. There’s something beautiful behind the red, grey, blue and green plastic facades. Nothing finer than that warm green/blue glow of a VFD (the later LCD models got my neck up). There was a charm behind the fact you needed to have a coin on you to get the batteries out (that battery compartment was just impossible). You’ll never find a boxed one these days. You’ll never find one with modules at a Boot Fair. You’ll never stumble across a working Super Speak & Spell.
And long may this exclusive annoyance last.