Skip to main content
Speak & Spell Was a Game Changer

Speak & Spell Was a Game Changer

Spring 2017 | By Bree Adamson ’04

If you’re a parent or child of the ’80s, you’re likely familiar with the brightly colored Speak & Spell and the metallic, metronomic voice it produced. But when it debuted in 1978, few could have predicted that the hardware inside that plastic icon would forever change the landscape of technology and communication.

“We had created the first single-chip digital signal processing (DSP) device,” says Gene Frantz ’71, one of the four original designers of the Speak & Spell from Texas Instruments. The discovery of DSP allowed researchers to study signal processing in real time with no perceived delay between the input and output of a signal. In short, they could convert information from analog to digital — and back to analog — almost instantly.

Frantz and his team’s breakthrough in DSP led to the creation of synthesized speech and contributed to advancements in digital audio, digital cameras, wired and wireless phone technology, and cloud storage. He says, “Many of the products we can no longer live without can be traced back to [DSPs in] early products, and finally back to the Speak & Spell.”

Here are a few more facts about the Speak & Spell:

A Real Voice“The voice of the Speak & Spell [was] a radio disc jockey in Dallas,” says Frantz, who majored in electrical engineering at UCF. “We would record his voice and then [put it] through an algorithm called analysis synthesis.” The result was a voice that didn’t convey much emotion, which turned out to be a benefit, Frantz says. “It never raised its voice, never got mad, never laughed at the student and never told on him or her.”

The MechanicsAfter being converted to digital and compressed, data was placed on an integrated circuit with 128 kilobits (16 kilobytes) of memory — state of the art considering 4 kilobits was standard, but a far cry from today’s gigabyte lifestyle. Whenever the Speak & Spell chose a new word, the information was pulled from the memory and sent to the synthesizer, which recreated the sounds for the user.

Bright and Smart While the cherry-red case of the Speak & Spell caught people’s eye, it was the interactive educational experience that captivated their attention. Using the rote method of learning, the toy taught users to spell words that didn’t follow traditional spelling rules. The 250-word list included “echo,” “beauty,” “courage” and “rhythm” — Frantz’s personal favorite.

More Than A ToyThe Speak & Spell was the first device to use synthetic speech — something many other researchers and organizations, including the federal government, were trying to accomplish. When his team cracked the code, Frantz says, “We had military companies calling us asking about [synthetic speech]. They would say, ‘We feel kind of funny coming to a toy company to talk about this kind of technology.’ ”

Collaborative SpiritDesigned to resemble a book, the Speak & Spell featured a handle and was powered by batteries, not a wall adapter, so kids could carry it around easily and safely. What began with four engineers evolved into a team of hundreds, including a significant design staff. “You have to live with this collaborative result, not all of which you would have chosen,” Frantz says. “But by golly, it looks good.”