Some walls have more than ears

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nYA-TxWsTM

The Speaking Picture Book was a children’s book made in Germany circa 1880-1895, published by A.Wahnschaffe, Numerberg. While I have been unable to find the actual content of the story, the sources I have found seem to indicate it did tell a story, rather than a “the cow said” type dialogue.

The Speaking Picture Book produced nine different animal sounds. “The mechanism used seven bellows with complicated flute pipes with stops.” (deadmedia.org/http://www.deadmedia.org/notes/5/050.html) The child would be reading the book or following the story, and an arrow would point to an ivory tag. When that tag was pulled, an animal sound was produced.

According to deadmedia.org, “…this Victorian toy, primitive though it is, is probably still the best synthetic speech toy to reach the market, and was certainly the predecessor of the Vocoder and of modern electronic voice synthesizers.” To contextualize, The Vocoder (Voice Operated Demonstrator) was revealed at the New York World’s fair in 1939. It reproduced the sound of a human voice.

In a similar vein, Thomas Edison had produced his own “talking doll” with a small phonograph that was to be hand cranked by the child. It was on the market for two short weeks and pulled in 1890. Partly, the full price of the doll was $25, an astronomical price at the time. Also, this particular toy was not very durable, so as well as being very expensive, could not survive the extremes of a child’s love.

The voice of the little girl seemed to say “Mary had a little lamb.” This is noted because apparently the sound produced from one of Edison’s first phonographs sounded very similar to “Mary had a little lamb.” Rather than being a particularly familiar childhood song, it can also be interpreted as a nod to Edison’s accomplishments. More on this subject can be found  in Lisa Gitelman’s “Scripts, Grooves and Writing Machines: Representing technology in the Edison Era”.

I found The Speaking Picture Book of particular interest because it establishes a beginning for talking toys for children, and in particular, I am interested in the pedagogical influence adding sound to pictures has, and how it can change the trajectory of a narrative and induce empathy. Many childrens’ toys rely on this mode of interaction using touch sensors to produce sounds as rewards (tickle me elmo, fur real friends to name a few), And once upon a time,  theatres would hire pianists to make the movie-going experience more engaging, and ultimately what I am still trying to determine is what else was making the combination of sound and images and important cultural thrust.

The engage and reward  mechanism has been employed in many ways. Most recently David Byrne presented “Playing the building” in New York, where an organ was made to function as a switch that plays the building.  The Battery Maritime Building  had sensors and devices hooked up to its pipes, beams and floorboards that then released sound when the organ was played, taking the Speaking Picture Book mechanism to a gigantic scale. Previous to this, [The User] in Quebec created the Silophone. Participants activated a silo from their browser window and could play audio and other foley and hear it resonate in the Silo, and create their own audio/immersive experience. [The User]‘s name reflects their methodoloy and echoes some of the discussion here; technology does not have to be faceless, and if an audience is compelled to participate, and feel personally connected to the work, they will engage.

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