TEACHING THE VODER TO TALK

STAN WATKINS MAKES PEDRO, THE VODER TALK (also on  barbsblog)

I just discovered a Hackaday site that is all about the Voder – the Voice Operation Demonstrator.

Both this site and the AT&T site say it was “invented” by Homer Dudley. However, it was actually and I quote my father, Stan Watkins, “developed by a group in the [Bell] Labs headed by Homer Dudley. It had reached the stage of a first model and several people had tried to get it to produce intelligible speech but without very much success. ” When Stan was asked by John Mills, the Labs’ Director of Publications, to “take on the job of making it talk,” he agreed and spent the next two years (1936/37) achieving this. He then trained 24 telephone operators to manipulate the keys. Helen Harper (who, “during the Voder days was Helen Kohla”) was Stan’s favorite Voderette.

I’ll go into more detail in a future blog.

 

11 thoughts on “TEACHING THE VODER TO TALK

      1. I have been also been looking for more information about Helen and I didn’t even check this website : I found the same obituary but with a picture of her : https://northcountrynow.com/obituaries/helen-harper-92-formerly-norwood , It took me a few months to even find any information on her.

        I am also designing a Voder clone , and replicating the original Voder circuits with modern electronics components, or I’m doing it with a computer, emulating the Voder with software ( software already exists that simulates the entire Voder ) and than designing the hardware that plugs into a computer, that emulates the Voder keyboard, pedal and other switches.

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      2. Would love to talk more about your efforts; sorry I didn’t get back to you before, we were away for several weeks, and life got in the way. I have a voder t-shirt that Doug Slocum produced; he has also made a pseudo-Voder but it doesn’t talk.

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      3. As of right now, this project is on hold because of how no one knows how to play it. I was talking to the person who created an emulator for the voder and they talked to Doug about the problems , on why it doesn’t work correctly, it’s due to a computer keyboard doesn’t have resistance like real voder keys. The voder uses keys that are resistive , based on how soft or hard you press it, the loudness varies, with a computer keyboard the loudness is just maxed out. It is known which keys make which consonants and vowels , but the problem is it’s not known how the sounds are put together to make words, what is known right now is the how hard you press on the keys which vary the loudness are involved in the process of combining sounds. What I was told is to figure out how to press the keys correctly someone needs spectrograms of human speech.

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  1. The archives at AT&T have copies of the Voder Operators manuals, which must have been written by my father, perhaps with others, though there is no credit on the actual documents. But those might be of use to you if you can get hold of them.

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    1. When I was talking to the person who created the voder emulator , they told me most of the manuals mostly for how the speech is created using the keyboard no longer exist , I am guessing the design documentation still exist , since Doug Slocum contacted Bell Labs for documentation to create his own implementation of the voder. So what are exactly the Voder operators manuals? I am not totally sure about what I was told about some of the manuals missing. To build the voder , I don’t think I need documentation , since I can probably contact Doug,the documentation that would be useful to see are the ones about how sounds and words are created.

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      1. I have Voderette Manuals from the AT&T archives. This is the first page and I think you’ll see it is what you are looking for. Doug Slocum was given permission to share these with me (as I’m the daughter of SSAWatkins who wrote them to train the 24 operators), but he said if we want to use them in our documentary we have to get a form from Sheldon Hochheiser at AT&T. I think you might have to contact Sheldon to get permission. He said “you will need a license from AT&T, which I should be able provide on AT&T’s form.” [cid:47c40b20-54c3-467c-b1d9-23d2e81662ba] ________________________________

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      2. I am guessing these manuals , have information how to create the syllables for words , using the voder keyboard ? Also could your father Stan, play the Voder just as well as a trained voderette? If the voderette manuals have the information on how words are created , why can’t Doug get his Voder clone to say words? Either its not 100% accurate and doesn’t work correctly , or what I know that it is super hard to learn how to play it. I am going to look into getting permission to see these manuals.

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      3. The engineers at the Bell Labs (led by Homer Dudley) made the machine which could reproduce all the vocal sounds. When my father, Stan Watkins, returned to the Bell Labs in 1936 after 7 years in Europe putting Western Electric sound equipment into film studios over there, he was put to work to figure out how to use the finger keys and foot pedals in sequences that would produce a voice. Nobody had done it before that. It took him a year, after which he chose 24 telephone operators and taught them how to manipulate the Voder. They practiced for a year under my father’s tutelage until they were proficient and then performed in the AT&T buildings at the Worlds’ Fair in NYC and the Golden Gate Exposition, both in 1939. Having taught the Voder to talk, Stan then taught it to sing Daisy Daisy, which you may have heard in 2001: Space Odyssey when Hal the computer is dying!
        So, yes to your question, my father could play the Voder better than the Voderettes that he trained!
        Barbara

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