For one shilling in 1846, Victorian londoners could see the Euphonia, a talking robotic head with ringlets.
Sometimes, it even sported a dress.
The machine had bellows for lungs, a tongue, a larynx made out of wires, reed and levers, and it was operated by a keyboard.
There were 16 keys, plus one to open the glottis, and foot pedals.
It could speak normally or in a whisper, it could laugh, and it also sang a haunting rendition of “God Save the Queen.”
Because the basic driver of the machine was a large bellows, audiences even felt her “breath” as she spoke.
Many who viewed the machine in action, including the Duke of Wellington, were convinced that a small person must have been hidden inside.
The Euphonia began the exhibition at London’s Egyptian Hall by saying:
“Please excuse my slow pronunciation…Good morning, ladies and gentlemen….It is a warm day….It is a rainy day….Buon giorno, signori.”
The euphonia was reported by The London Journal to speak English, French, and German with a German accent, which was put down to the native language of the Austrian inventor, Joseph Faber.
Apparently, it took Faber seven long years simply to get his machine to correctly pronounce the letter e.
John Hollingshead, a London theatre manager, describes the speech of Euphonia as a ‘hoarse sepulchral voice’ that ‘came from the mouth of the figure, as if from the depths of a tomb. It wanted little imagination to make the very few visitors believe that the figure contained an imprisoned human–or half human–being, bound to speak slowly when tormented by the unseen power outside.’
While in London, the Euphonia received positive critical reviews. The Times even went so far as to proclaim it was “almost a duty of all who can afford to see it, to gratify at once their curiosity, and show their encouragement of genius.”
Just a year prior to the exhibit, influential scientist Joseph Henry imagined linking two Euphonias together via telegraph line so that one might read aloud a telegram sent by the other.
A precursor of the telephone, perhaps?
Writing in Punch, Thackeray quipped “a clear saving of £10,000 a year” would be made by replacing the Speaker in the house of commons with a Euphonia.
The only requirements would be:
“..the mace before it. Have a snuff box on the side with rapee and Irish for the convenience of Members, and a simple apparatus for crying out “Order, order!” at intervals of ten minutes”.
Despite everything, Joseph Faber’s London exhibition was a crushing failure.
Historian Patrick Feaster says:
“People at the time consistently remarked on the fact that it sounded very, very monotonous … and this was very unsettling for people to hear.”
They probably also didn’t like its vacant stare, the strange rubber tongue that flopped around its empty mouth, or the fact that a tube inserted in its nose adjusted pitch or accent.
Faber continued to tour the English provinces with the Euphonia, but according to Hollingshead, in these rural areas he was “even less appreciated.”
Hollingshead proved eerily prescient when he wrote:
“I have no doubt that [Faber] slept in the same room as his figure – his scientific Frankenstein monster – and I felt the secret influence of an idea that the two were destined to live and die together.”
More than a decade later, in a lonely English town, Faber ended the Euphonia before ending himself.
One person who did see the Euphonia in London in 1846 and come away deeply impressed was Melville Bell, the father of Alexander Graham Bell…