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ISCApad Archive  »  2015  »  ISCApad #205  »  Events  »  ISCA Events  »  INTERSPEECH 2015 Update 4 (March 2015)

ISCApad #205

Wednesday, July 08, 2015 by Chris Wellekens

3-1-6 INTERSPEECH 2015 Update 4 (March 2015)

A View from Dresden onto the History of Speech Communication

Part 3: Voices for toys - First commercial spin-offs in speech synthesis


Complete article including figures available at:


When Wolfgang von Kempelen died in 1804, his automata (including the speaking machine) came in ownership of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (1772 – 1838), who demonstrated them at many tours in Europe and America. He was a clever mechanic and applied Kempelen’s ideas in a mechanical voice for puppets, which could pronounce “Mama” and “Papa”. He received a patent on it in 1824 (Figure 1).


The idea of speaking puppets and toys was continued mainly in the area of Sonneberg in Thuringia, Germany. This small town was the world capital of manufacturing puppets and toys in the 19th century. The voices consist of a bellow, a metal tongue for voicing, and a resonator. There are three reasons why we appreciate the mechanical voices as a milestone in the development of speech technology:


1. The mechanical voices established the first commercial spin-off in speech research. The toy manufacturers in Sonneberg recognized the importance of Mälzel’s invention and produced speaking puppets from 1852. The “Stimmenmacher” (voices maker) was a specific profession, and we find eight manufacturers for human and animal voices alone in Sonneberg in 1911. The most important of them was Hugo Hölbe (1844 – 1931), who developed mechanisms which were able to speak not only Mama/Papa (Figure 2), but also words like Emma, Hurrah, etc.


2. The mechanical voices were applied in the first book with multimodal properties. The bookseller Theodor Brand from Sonneberg received a patent for his “speaking picture book” in 1878. This book shows different animals. Pulling a knob, which corresponds to a picture, activates the voice of the animal (Figure 3). The picture book was published in several languages and was a huge commercial success all over the world.


3. The mechanical voices are the first attempt to support the rehabilitation of hard hearing people by means of speech technology. The German otologist Johannes Kessel (1839 – 1907) demonstrated Hölbe’s voices as a training tool in speech therapy at a conference in 1899. The quality of this kind of synthetic speech proved to be not sufficient for this purpose, however.


The samples from Kessel came to the Phonetic Laboratory of Panconcelli-Calzia in Hamburg, who mentioned them in his historic essays. Due to the transfer of the phonetic exhibits from Hamburg to Dresden in 2005, you can visit the mechanical voices in the HAPS of the TU Dresden now.



Rüdiger Hoffmann

Photographs Copyright TU Dresden / HAPS


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