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Euphonia: The Sad Story of Joseph Faber and His Creepy Machine That Made Ghostly Sounds

BY Venkat Pulapaka April 10, 2019
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Euphonia, the talking machine.

Euphonia, the talking machine. (Public Domain)

Today we all are familiar about Sophia, the walking-talking humanoid, of 2018. But, how many of us know that there was a talking machine called Euphonia in the United States during the 19th century?

A German immigrant named Joseph Faber is said to have built the creepy machine sometime in the 1800s. One end of the machine, Euphonia, had a woman’s head that spoke in sombre voice or ghostly monotone.

The talking machine appeared like a piano-like device with a female face having ringlet curls and staring vacantly at no one in particular. The actual meaning of Euphonia is ‘pleasant sounding’. In Latin, Euphonia is given a female identity. Faber originally did not think of designing the device to appear as a woman.

Theory of electromagnetic relay

In the 19th century, Euphonia was considered as an advanced machine that can talk. Joseph Faber would have been thankful to Joseph Henry who developed the theory of electromagnetic relay. This theory is the forerunner of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. Interestingly, Euphonia was based on Henry’s theory.  

People admiring Faber’s talking machine believe that he advanced Henry’s technology while developing Euphonia. Faber installed 16 keys that could give basic sounds generally found in European languages.

These keys used a pneumatic system to push air to create a roar like sound through a replica of the human speech apparatus. Such a sound can be considered as a mechanically synthesised speech.

Advanced mechanics

There was a 17th key that helped in operating the glottis and in this case the mechanical one. With the help of such advanced mechanics of the day, Euphonia could speak in various European languages. Interestingly, it could also sing ‘God Save the Queen’ song.

Generally, Faber used to operate the keys and hoped to impress the audience.

Faber was born in a place called Freiburg in Germany sometime in 1800. In the early 1800s, he worked at the Vienna Observatory as an astronomer. But his eyesight got damaged due to an infection. In the 1820s, he tried perfected the concept of mechanical speech.

By 1843, Faber began showcasing his talking machine in Europe. The next year, he travelled to the United States to showcase Euphonia. Two years later he returned to Europe and exhibited Euphonia at the Egyptian Hall in London.

Deeply impressed with Faber’s clever device, Henry, who was director of the Smithsonian Institute, believed that with more research the machine could be developed as an audio telegraph device. Or, maybe it could broadcast sermons sometime in future.

Famous phonograph

While raving about Faber’s invention, Henry totally ignored the aspirations of a young Graham Bell, who went on to develop the now famous phonograph. The phonograph laid the foundation to the later-day telephone.

Meanwhile, the response of the audience in Europe to Euphonia was way below Faber’s anticipation. Very few people attended the Euphonia show and those who attended felt creepy. 

With the result, Euphonia’s remained a short-lived curiosity.

So, why was Euphonia a failure?

Explaining the failure of Faber’s device, robotics expert Masahiro Mori said in 1970 that Euphonia was neither human-like nor non-human. It was somewhere in between. Hence, people of that era rejected it. 

People felt creepy

Another aspect that needs to be noted is that people felt creepy when the woman’s face on the Euphonia device stared vacantly into the crowd.

After the failure of his European tour, Faber is claimed to have destroyed the Euphonia device, before taking his life in 1850. His suicidal act was termed as an obsessive preoccupation with scientific prototype turning into insanity. 

It is by now that Faber’s machine had a disorienting impact on people of that era. To understand why Faber took years to build Euphonia and what he did or did not achieve in with his efforts, we need to understand the past.

Considered as heretical works

For centuries people have been making attempts to create contraptions that speak or walk. Take for example the myth of Pygmalion. In the 13th century, a philosopher named Albertus Magnus had invented a head that could speak. It is another issue that his student St. Thomas Aquinas destroyed it.

Others who made similar inventions include Roger Bacon, Abbß Mical and Friedrich von Knaus. However, all early speaking devices looked down as heretical works and therefore destroyed.

Interestingly, key evidence of a talking machine that really works came into prominence during the second half of the 18th century. A man simply named as Kratzenstein developed a set of 5 tubes that could utter the sounds of 5 basic vowels.

Faber got excited after coming across Kratzenstein’s formula and develop the Euphonia device. Though Euphonia failed, it successfully laid the foundation for the invention of today’s robotics and smartphone.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Leonardo’s Robot: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mechanical Knight and Other Robots“.


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