A History of the Speak & Spell
Most of us who grew up in the Eighties will remember that the Speak & Spell was instrumental in E.T. the Extra-terrestrial’s plan to phone home. But before it made its big-screen debut in 1982, Texas Instrument’s Speak & Spell made its public debut in June of 1978 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago.
It was a brightly colored educational toy that’s original stated purpose was to teach children 7 years old and up how to spell and pronounce 200 commonly misspelled words.
Texas Instruments was founded in 1951. It originally started back in 1930 as Geophysical Service Incorporated. As it grew though, it started to see its Laboratory and Manufacturing division was taking off because of defense contracts. At this point, they changed their name to Texas Instruments.
They produced the world’s first commercial silicon transistor in 1954. That same year the company designed and manufactured the first transistor radio.
A hub of innovation, TI would continue to roll out new inventions throughout the fifties. Then in 1967, they invented the device they would become most well-known for, the hand-held calculator.
Development of the Speak & Spell
The Speak & Spell was developed by TI starting in November of 1976. The project was a reaction to tech learning toys like “The Little Professor” and an outgrowth of the companies research into electronic speech synthesis, and bubble memory.
The project responsible for its creation began as a three-month feasibility study with a budget of $25,000, the equivalent of $117,331 in 2021. Four people are credited with early work on the device: Paul Breedlove, Richard Wiggins, Larry Brantingham, and Gene Frantz.
What is Bubble Memory?
Bubble memory’s heyday started in the Seventies and would all but disappear by the late Eighties when it was replaced by Flash RAM. Still, for about a decade, it looked like the technology of the future. It would allow for storage similar to what you would get on a hard drive, but with much speedier performance because it had no moving parts. That characteristic of bubble memory is what Texas Instruments wanted to find a novel use for and it was Breedlove who thought that the virtual speech data would be a great match since it took up a lot of memory.
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Still building this would be a challenge. In an interview that Richard Wiggins gave to Vintage Computing & Gaming on the 30th Anniversary of the Speak & Spell,
Texas Instruments knew that selling the Speak & Spell was going to be a challenge. The February 1982 issues of Spectrum, looked at the design case history of the product. It is filled with great information and discusses what the company discovered when their marketing people talked to adults about what they saw as major drawbacks to the potential product. This included:
A limited word capacity.
The cold and computer-like manner and accent of the digital voice.
Reliability of existing talking toys.
Its ability to hold a child interest.
Despite these concerns, development continued with a belief in its capability trumping the concerns of consumers.
The Little Professor
In 1976, Texas Instruments released one of the most compelling electronic math tutors of its era, The Little Professor. Designed to look like a wise old teacher with glasses and a mustache, the professor was a reverse calculator.
You would be given a math problem and needed to provide the answer. According to Texas Instruments,
The Little Professor suggested problems to students and rewarded them with a message on its display when they gave the correct answer.
Released in time for Christmas of 1976, the Professor was a runaway success. So much so that the company could not fill all the orders and demand rolled strongly into 1977.
Priced to move at under $20, they would move over a million units. Its success would lead Texas Instruments and other companies to start taking educational electronic toys more seriously
Up until 1978, most learning toys that were used in speech and spelling would use tape recorders or pull string phonograph records. Both of these required pre-recording by a human being. They were also fragile and were prone to wear after repeated use.
The Speak & Spell was a giant leap forward because its solid-state circuitry had no moving parts. So as long as your batteries were strong or your device was plugged in, you shouldn’t notice any degradation in the quality of the voice. It was also more durable, which made it ideal for young children who could haul their Speak & Spell around without worrying about breaking a delicate mechanism.
According to Texas Instruments, the Speak & Spell “marked the first time the human vocal tract had been electronically duplicated on a single chip of silicon.”
This single-chip speech synthesizer was initially called the TMC0281. It performed what was at the time very futuristic, using a technique called linear predictive coding. This allowed the chip to produce a sound that approximated speech from the components of words, which are called phonemes, combined with rules on how to use this data. With that capability, you could save information about the speech to be created in a format that was much smaller than you would in recorded audio.
It was a technology that was brimming with promise. You can hear a lot of that promise in this press release from the 1978 Consumer Electronics show.
Excerpt from the 1978 Press Release from the CES show
Speak & Spell employs an entirely new concept in speech reproduction. Unlike tape recorders and pull-string phonograph records used in recent years in many “speaking” toys, TI’s Solid State Speech circuitry has no moving parts. When it is told to say something, it draws a word from memory, processes it through an integrated circuit model of a human vocal tract and then speaks electronically. In its main mode of operation, Speak & Spell randomly selects a word and pronounces it in standard American English. A child presses the unit’s alphabetic keys to spell the word, which appears, letter by letter, on an eight-character display screen. Right answers earn verbal and visual praise; wrong answers receive patient encouragement to try again. A number of games are offered to intrigue children of all ages.
Adjusted for inflation that would be over $200 today. I did look through some old catalogs that feature the Speak & Spell during the early years and I can not find it for anywhere near $50. Even going as far forward as 1981, the cheapest I could find it, excluding possible sales, is $67.99.
The original concept for a speaking educational toy was called, the Spelling Bee. A riff on the Little Professor, it would have been themed like a brightly colored cartoon bee. This concept was abandoned for a more generic design. I do believe they would use this name for a future toy though.
The early Speak & Spell was a 10“ x 7” x 1 15/16″ brightly colored orange, yellow, and blue plastic gaming system. It had a speaker, a keyboard, a wide handle, and a display. It used 4 C-cell alkaline batteries (not included) or a 120V/6.0V 285mA AC adapter for power. For personal listening, it had a headphone jack on the side of the unit.
In the lower right-hand corner on the front of the unit, it had the Texas Instruments logo. Which includes an image of the state of Texas.
In the late eighties, they would alter the logo, making it much smaller, but adding the company name clearly spelled out above it.
For over a decade, Texas Instruments would manufacture the Speak & Spell. Over that period of time, they would implement some changes. Some were cosmetic but others changed the functionality and usefulness of the system.
They would ultimately produce 4 versions of the original Speak & Spell and they are differentiated by their manufacturing dates. These changes start in 1978 and go all the way up until Texas Instruments ceased selling them in the Nineties
The display for the entire run of the Texas Instruments Speak & Spell was a vacuum fluorescent display or VFD. VFDs proceeded the more modern LCDs and LEDs that you see in more modern electronics.
VFDs looked great and could be viewed in bright sunlight without much issue. Their downsides were that they would degrade over time and they tended to draw more power, which is why battery-powered VFD devices chewed through batteries.
The original 1978 keyboard featured 40 raised button keys. Which while satisfying to press broke easily and their spacing allowed for possible debris to makes its way between the keys and the unit housing. This keyboard would be replaced in 1980 with a flat membrane-style keyboard, which was much more durable and child-friendly. It looked futuristic at the time, but it was not as satisfying to push the buttons.
Another change to the system happened in starting 1981. They reduced the number of words that came with the system. Which enhanced the need to purchase addon cartridges for the system.
What are Word Lists?
When reading about the various Speak & Spells, the term “Word List” will appear from time to time. Simply put, it is the list of words that your Speak & Spell, with its current cartridge, is capable of speaking and spelling.
A Retro Modern Speak & Spell
In 2019, the company Basic Fun began to manufacture a new Speak & Spell. While it looks and functions much like the classic model, it does support some changes. This includes the replacement of the VFD screen with an LCD screen, the use of cartridges, and most dramatically the removal of the voice chip. This new version might look and sound like the original, but the voice you hear is actually recorded dialog that had been processed to sound like it has been synthesized.
How to Play
The Speak & Spell taught people through a series of games. At its core is the game “Say It.” This is a spelling game where the unit speaks the word and the player has to try and spell the word. They have three chances to get it right before it moves onto the next word. After ten words a score is displayed.
It was a very fun game but could be challenging because of the speech generator. When a word sounds like another one, you do not have any recourse besides having the same voice keep repeating the word. It could get frustrating.
While “Say It” is the core educational element of the Speak & Spell, “Mystery Word” was my favorite. Basically a version of the classic game Hangman, I spent many hours playing this one.
Rounding out the fun you had the code generating “Secret Word” and the word shifting game, “Letter.” Neither of those games got played often when I had access to a Speak & Spell.
To get access to more words or add any new functionality to your system, you would need to purchase cartridges.
Another unique feature of the Speak & Spell is its use of cartridges. It was one of the earliest portable gaming systems to embrace their use. The fact that the system had cartridges is often a huge surprise even to people who owned a Speak & Spell.
That is because, unlike other cartridge-based systems, replacing a cartridge on a unit was not simple. To do so you had to open and remove the batteries from their compartment. Then you would see this little piece of plastic that you could just about grab onto or use a screwdriver, key, or coin in a slot in the plastic to lever the cartridge out.
In all, they would produce 24 cartridges for the various hardware and language versions of the Speak & Spell. The more well-known of these are the 10 different English language expansion cartridges that were produced for the 1978 and 1980 Speak & Spell. They were:
Super Stumpers (Grades 4-6)
Super Stumpers (Grades 6-8)
Now I know one title on that list made you stop, E.T. Fantasy. That was a cartridge that was released as a tie-in with the film and came with an amazing E.T. activity book that helped in the education process.
They would also release cartridges in at least 9 countries with seven language variations. What is interesting about these releases is that they lacked any sort of regional lockout.
So a cartridge bought in one country would work just as well in another country. This is not often the case in international products where they often purposefully include some way of locking out material manufactured for other markets. This didn’t happen with the Speak & Spell because almost all of the units are at their core the same outside of branding and language variations on the cases and keyboard.
Each cartridge would cost about $20.
Super Speak & Spell
In 1989 the Super Speak & Spell was released. After a decade of consistency, this new system made some large changes, while keeping the simple mission of education intact.
The original Super Speak & Spell was mostly red in color. The VFD screen was swapped out for an LCD screen and the keyboard, which had been an ABC layout was switched to the QWERTY style that matched the regular keyboard layout most of us are familiar with from our home computers. The trusty handle, which has been on the top was now at the bottom.
In 1991 they released a brand new version that used the classic Speak & Spell form factor, but with the updated functionality and tech from the Super. This new version had the handle return to the top and was light blue with a yellow band that encompassed the screen and speaker.
Sadly the game cartridges or modules were changed so that they were not compatible with prior Speak & Spell. They produced 4 modules for the new system.
One improvement they made was how you used the modules. Instead of having to open the battery compartment and use your keys or a coin to remove and install new modules, the access port was located on the outside of the unit. So while they had fewer modules, they were much easier to use.
A Three Part Learning System
Speak & Spell was the first of what would be a three-part talking educational toy series. The other two in the series were the Speak & Read and Speak & Math.
Speak & Read
Speak & Read was released in 1980. It was designed to help children aged four to eight develop their reading skills and vocabulary. The case and controllers are very similar to the Speak & Spell, but the keyboard has some different buttons and the color scheme is blue & white.
The system came with a You Can Read! Book. This book is designed to aid in helping a child with reading skills. It includes activities to practice newly acquired reading skills and a story section that uses words that are learned while using the Speak & Read.
Children can select from six different activities. They include:
Word Zap – A word is spoken by the system. Then one by one, three words appear on the screen. The child hits the word zapper key when they see the word.
Hear It – A child can type in any word from the system’s word list. When they hit enter, they will hear it pronounced correctly.
Letter Stumper – A sequence of letter is read aloud. The child needs to press the letter that is spoken.
Picture Read – This activity required that the child read the You Can Read! book. The system will give a picture number and the child needs to find the picture in the book and then choose one three words in the book that goes with the picture.
Read It – The child hears a sentence with a word missing. They are then given three choices and need to select the word that completes the sentence.
Word Maker – The system will give you the components of a word and ask you to assemble it into a proper word. For example it will say “Add (C) to AT. What word does that make?” Then then child needs to type in this new word.
Much like with the Speak & Spell, the Speak & Read was extensible through the purchase of cartridges. Each cartridge had a theme and would expand the vocabulary of the Speak & Read.
They released seven:
A Dog on a Log (Grade 1)
On the Track (Grade 1)
The Seal That Could Fly (Grade 2)
The Third Circle (Grade 2)
Who’s Who at the Zoo (Grade 2)
Sea Sights (Grade 3)
The Millionth Knight (Grade 3)
In 1986, they made some cosmetic changes to the Speak & Read. This included the logo change they made to the Speak & Spell and removing a wavy line design around the keyboard. The colors are the same, but this update is just a bit boring.
Speak & Math
The Speak & Math was also released in 1980. Its form factor is very similar to its sister product. The big difference would be its grey and blue color scheme and its math-themed interface.
According to the manual, the Speak & Math educational product is designed to provide positive reinforcement for basic mathematics while engaging your child in fun activities.
The system has six activities to help children develop math skills. They are:
Solve It – In this activity, after selecting a type of math problem, the child will hear and see a math problem. They will then press number keys to provide an answer.
Mix It – This activity challenges the child with a mixture of random math problems.
Number Stumper – This is a fun “guess the number game,” where the child is tasked with trying to guess a number and with each guess is given clues that should help get them closer.
Write It – This activity teaches children numbers. The system speaks them aloud and then the child needs to enter the number they heard.
Greater/Less – In this activity the child is given two numbers and needs to choose if a number is greater than or less than the other number.
Word Problems – This is one of the more challenging activities on the Speak & Math. Children get a series of problems and need to answer them correctly.
The 1980 version of the system has a greater overall capacity. So more problems and words than models sold starting in 1981.
Just like the Speak & Read, the Speak & Math got a cosmetic change in 1986.
Unlike the Speak & Spell and the Speak & Read, the Speak & Math does not use cartridges.
A Sears Exclusive – The Braille Speak & Spell
It is not common to find them for sale, but Sears sold a version of the Speak & Spell and Speak & Math with Braille characters. It cost the same as the other standard Speak & Learn products and outside of the keyboard, it functioned the same.
Braille characters were never added to the cartridges which limited their usability but still, it was a great addition to the lineup.
In 1995, high off their success with the Talkboy from Home Alone and its handheld games, Tiger Electronics acquired Texas Instrument’s toy division. This deal included the Speak & Spell and its other educational products.
According to Texas Instrument’s spokesperson, Cathy Sang, the company was “leaving the toy market to focus its educational efforts on math and science tools for students.”
Tiger was aware that sales and electronic toys had been flattening since their height in the eighties, but they saw a trend in the growth of electronic learning aids. Which had risen ten percent in 1994.
Their acquisition would put the Speak & Spell alongside other Tiger learning products like the talking robot 2XL and the multiple-choice learning game, Quiz Whiz.
Unfortunately for fans of the classic Speak & Spell design, Tiger opted for a radical redesign of the Speak & Spell. In 1996 they released a laptop-style machine as the Deluxe Speak & Spell.
This was a short-lived product though because in 1998 Tiger became a part of Hasbro and the Speak & Spell began to fade from toy shelves until the revival by Basic Fun in 2019.
The Retroist Speak & Spell Podcast
If you like what you are reading, you will love the companion podcast I released for the Speak & Spell.
Did the Speak & Spell Work
The short answer is, probably not. In a 1982 study called Evaluation of electronic learning aids: Texas Instruments’ “Speak Spell”, researchers found that after two weeks of regular use:
“A significant increase in the spelling of words in the machine’s lexicon was observed for the treatment group but this appeared to be only a transitory increase because spelling performance on these words began to drop to pre-machine exposure levels once the opportunity to use the machine was removed. No improvement was observed in the spelling of words not in the machine’s lexicon.”
So in the short term, children had improved performance on the words in the Speak & Spell, but once the machine was taken away, performance went down. They also didn’t show any improvement in spelling skills to words outside of the system’s word list.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The Speak & Spell has made appearances in films and television. This includes big-budget films like Toy Story and of course, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
In the film, E.T. assembled a communication device to “phone home.” An important component of that phone was a 1st generation Speak & Spell. E.T’s communicator designer and the person who helped immortalize the Speak & Spell was named Henry Robert Feinberg.
A former employee of AT&T, Feinberg has designed educational and science exhibits for museums and theme parks like Epcot Center and Universal Studios.
Early in his career he always worked with one of my favorite TV educators, “Mr. Wizard” himself, Don Herbert. Helping to devise ways to demonstrate science in a way humans at all age levels could understand.
If you do not own a Speak & Spell or one of its associated devices, you might not need to track one down. Instead, you can use an emulator or try a simulator.
If you want to run the original code and get a purer experience, you will want to try the version you can run on the Internet Archive via MAME. Warning, you might lose a lot of time on this.
Almost immediately smart and talented people began to see the potential in the Speak & Spell to make new sounds. So it quickly became fodder for people engaged in the hobby of circuit bending. That is where people experiment on usually low-voltage electronic devices to attempt to get new sounds or visuals out of them.
Pioneered by people like Reed Ghazala in the 1960s. Ghazala was also the person who coined the term in 1992.
In addition to making music and experimenting on these devices, Ghazala also build instruments for other musicians. Some of the more famous of his works are his Incantors which are built from Speak & Spells or one of its companion products.
When asked why he chose to work with the Speak & Spell.
Speak & Spell educational games, are packed with complex sound-producing circuitry that can easily, by anyone, be nudged off the edge of their theory-true world.
The Speak & Spell might not have made kids smarter, but it helped to normalize the idea that educational toys could be fun. This is why it is well-remembered by so many people and had been nominated to the Toy Hall of Fame.
As a technology it was ground-breaking. This is why, even though it is a toy, it seemed likely that an intelligent Extra-Terrestrial would use one in its interstellar communican device. It would also explain why back on earth it was inducted into The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame.
It has contributed to music in ways that no one predicted and most importantly it was a ball to play with one. That is why a revival of the device in 2019 happened and why adults, with or without kids have been purchasing them. A good toy is a hard thing to forget and the Speak & Spell is one of the greats.
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