Joseph Faber, a German scientist in the 1840s, invented a machine called Euphonia: a keyboard-controlled system of bellows and pipes that produced complex sounds, ultimately enabling it to breathe and “speak” a variety of languages.
And then he chopped off a lady’s head and mounted it to fireplace bellows, because it’s not called Happy Science; it’s called Mad Science.
It’s not an actual human head of course, just a nightmarish facsimile, but it’s not merely there for macabre decoration: Faber’s polyglot machine used working mouth parts – moving lips and a wriggling tongue – to speak in its ghostly, sepulchral monotone. Faber showcased his machine at London’s Egyptian Hall, where the public found it “eerie and unsettling.”
As a feat of engineering, Faber’s invention was an extremely clever one, and fellow scientists recognized that its complex technologies had many potential applications outside of targeted haunting.
If history is written by the victors, then it is obvious that the victors were indifferent to the man who invented the world’s first talking machine. The anecdotal scraps one can still gather indicate that Joseph Faber was a scientist of German descent who may have studied astronomy before turning to anatomy and the mechanics of human speech. A British commentator described Faber as a rumpled, sad-looking man, with the forlorn appearance of a socially-inept obsessive who likely shared a bed with his mechanical woman.
In December of 1845, Faber exhibited his “Wonderful Talking Machine” at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia. By all reports this machine– consisting of a keyboard, bellows, foot pedals, an ivory windpipe and other bits of simulated vocal tract and facial structure– was capable of speaking, whispering and even singing in any European language. Faber’s machine was the genuine article, a landmark achievement in the field of artificial speech. But his work was roundly ignored by the scientific community.
Faber’s Talking Machine may have disappeared from history entirely, if it were not for P.T. Barnum, who took Faber and his machine abroad to exhibit at London’s Egyptian Hall, and later installed the “Euphonia” amongst marvels of nature, science and art at his American Museum in New York. Barnum succeeded in gathering attention for Faber’s device by framing it as a spectacular example of the weird, dubious and wonderful. Barnum knew how to wrap stories around things, and he understood that the public was more interested in puzzles than rational feats. It was not enough that the machine existed, that a clever engineer could build it and explain its functioning. Rather “Euphonia” inspired wonder because she was mysterious, because people couldn’t work out whether this machine truly had the power of speech or even thought, if it was operated by a ventriloquist or contained some tortured half-human.
Euphonia: The Amazing Talking Machine
This machine did actually exist and is one of the first known instances of a viable speech synthesizer. The plan of Faber’s machine replicates that of the human speech organs; it had the appearance of a concert piano (possessed of a keyboard and foot-pedals) surmounted by the floating mask of a woman’s face, framed on either side by long ringlet curls. The vocal anatomy included artificial jaws, rubber tongue, glottis, larynx, vocal cords and lungs, worked by a series of strings, levers, shutters, and bellows rather than tendons and muscles. A keyboard of sixteen levers produced sixteen elementary sounds which could be combined to produce words and phrases in most European languages. When Faber demonstrated the device he put it in motion and explained the action of the various parts. Although the voice could alternate between regular annunciation, whisper and song, the sound produced was monotonous and devoid of affect. As a result, listeners found the voice to be ghostly, sepulchral, or sorrowful. The “stoney-eyed” face was motionless aside from the moveable parts of the lips and jaws.
The author of The Peerless Prodigies of P.T. Barnum did read somewhere that Faber was so attached to his precious machine that he carried part of the head around with him in a specially designed case. However, the idea that Euphonia’s mask was cast from a person known to Faber is a confection of the author’s imagination.
The machine as it was showcased in Barnum’s Museum was photographed by Mathew Brady c. 1860.