Humans seem to have always been fascinated with imitations of their own voice. The earliest example was recorded by Ctesias (a 5th century BCE physician) who described a parrot that could speak in Greek. With the advent of machines in the 19th century, attentions turned to the possibility of building our own imitation device. Though it was seen as fiction, that didn’t stop some tinkerers and inventors from trying.
The very idea of a ‘Talking Machine’ seemed impossible, the term an oxymoron. It denoted a contradictory combination of biological and mechanical function, a nineteenth-century cyborg.
About 30 years before the invention of the telephone, Joseph Faber had imagined a telegraph that could produce speech once delivered. What he created, by 1845, was the Euphonia; a strange instrument composed of 16 keys, various bellows/chambers, and strings. It could be used to reproduce (in a monotonous and ghostly manner) any human speech. Faber brought the device on tour, showing it to audiences including the Duke of Wellington, P. T. Barnum, and one Joseph Henry.
Joseph Henry was an influential scientist in the field of electromagnetics and was known as a debunker of false inventions. When Henry caught word of the Euphonia, he agreed to join P. T. Barnum in taking a look. What he found was indeed a speaking machine:
I have seen the speaking figure of Mr. Wheatstone of London, but it cannot be compared with this which instead of uttering a few words is capable of speaking whole sentences composed of any words what ever.
– Joseph Henry in a letter to Henry M. Alexander, January 6, 1846
Another visitor to the Euphonia was Alexander Melville Bell, a student of acoustics and father of Alexander Graham Bell. He was quite taken with the invention and, in 1863, brought two of his sons to see a similar device. After a demonstration, Melville challenged his sons to create a similar device on their own.
Not only did the two succeed in creating a machine that spoke “mama”, but Alexander Graham Bell famously created the first telephone. This was, coincidentally, with support from the above mentioned Joseph Henry (who was now the first director of the Smithsonian Institute). Though Faber did not live to see it, his invention led to the creation of speaking devices around the world!