Talking Head: Joseph Faber’s Euphonia

Hailed as the ‘scientific sensation of the age,’ Joseph Faber’s ‘marvellous talking machine,’ known as Euphonia, was first exhibited at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia in December 1845. Faber, who had settled in America from Germany, had dedicated years of his life to his creation, having destroyed and then rebuilt it several times. The scientist Joseph Henry had been most impressed after seeing Euphonia in Philadelphia, described it as a ‘wonderful invention,’ and stating that whilst he had admired ‘the speaking figure of Mr. Wheatstone of London,’ it could ‘not be compared with this which instead of uttering a few words is capable of speaking whole sentences composed of any words.’

The purpose of Faber’s machine was to replicate human speech, and this was done by using a foot pedal which was attached to bellows via a series of tubes that connected a mechanical glottis to a keyboard. A contemporary science journal described its workings, revealing that a ‘vibrating ivory reed, of variable pitch, forms its vocal chords. There is an oral cavity, whose size and shape can be rapidly changed by depressing the keys on a key-board. A rubber tongue and lips make the consonants; a little windmill, turning in its throat, rolls the letter R, and a tube is attached to its nose when it speaks French. This is the anatomy of this really wonderful piece of mechanism.’

Euphonia’s voice emanated from behind a mask made to represent the face of beautiful young woman; it was designed to speak any European language, although contemporary accounts state that it spoke with a German accent, sang God Save the Queen, and could also mimic human laughter.

In 1846, Euphonia arrived in London accompanied by the American showman P.T. Barnum; the public clamoured to view Faber’s fantastical contraption and the Duke of Wellington offered it his personal endorsement. Punch even featured a cartoon of Benjamin Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck who were heading the protectionist opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws, the latter having never previously spoken in Parliament during the eighteen years since his election, with the caption, ‘By the way, why should not Lord George Bentinck have one of these machines constructed, with a Benjamin Disraeli figure-head, and play upon it himself at once, and spare the honourable Member for Shrewsbury the bother of being his Lordship’s Euphonia?’

John Hollingshead, a London theatre manager, described 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.’ Of Faber himself, Hollingshead remembered that he was ‘a sad-faced man, dressed in respectable well-worn clothes that were soiled by contact with tools, wood, and machinery. The room looked like a laboratory and workshop, which is was. The Professor was not too clean, and his hair and beard sadly wanted the attention of a barber.’

For all his creativity, Faber was unable to take financial advantage of his Euphonia and lacked the ability or incentive to properly market his machine. After touring Europe and America, Faber discovered that interest in his invention was rapidly dwindling; however, one of his most ardent supporters was Melville Bell whose son would later develop one of the most ground-breaking innovations of the late nineteenth century. By the 1860s, Faber had become wholeheartedly disillusioned with his work, eventually destroying Euphonia before taking his own life, as John Hollingshead predicted, ‘I had no doubt that he slept in the same room as the figure – his scientific Frankenstein monster – and I felt the secret influence of an idea that the two were destined to live and die together.’

Selected Sources:

Joseph Faber’s Talking Euphonia