Speak & Spell was created by Texas Instruments’ Paul Breedlove in
the late 70s and introduced to American markets in 1978. It went through
several redesigns, but the basic idea remained the same: in a British-ish
accent, the toy would ask you how to spell a word. You’d type it in, and
the toy would tell you if you were correct or wrong. Minigames, such as
Mystery Word and Secret Code, were included in the original console.
All of which must sound a little educational and dry to kids of the early
21st century, right? I mean, a SPELLING game? What’s fun in that??
The fun is in the voice chip. Speak & Spell talked to you. Unlike Chatty
Cathy, Speak & Spell wasn’t just a dumb voice tape: it interacted with
the information you gave it. Back in the day, this was wildly exotic.
Kids in the early 1980s LOVED their Speak & Spells.
Here’s another commercial with Bill Cosby’s added flair:
As testament to its popularity, Speak & Spell showed up in various forms
of pop culture. Way trendy Depeche Mode named their 1981 debut album
“Speak and Spell.” It has the delightfully catchy “Just Can’t Get
Enough.” Love, love, LOVE it.
Here's an image of an E.T.
toy that was available when the movie fervor was at its peak.
Cute, I guess, but I wish his chest were a little more glowy and
a little less gruesome. (Photo credit:
makeshift communication, featuring a Speak & Spell, that E.T.
used to 'phone home.'
Then little Carol Anne, portrayed by the adorable and now deceased Heather
O’Rourke, played with one in 1988’s “Poltergeist III”. (Side note: I
can’t watch any of the Poltergeist movies without being simultaneously
enthralled by the minuscule psychic, scared by the creepy old preacher,
and heartbroken by little
Heather and her illness.)
Here’s an example of the Speak & Spell being used to fun musical effect:
Some electronically advanced people opened up the back panel and played
around with the innards of their Speak & Spells, making new and bizarre
sounds. Speak & Spell circuit bending was (and is!) a world of its own.
Here’s a somewhat lengthy (but thorough!) discussion of Speak & Spell
circuit bending and glitching, in case you’re inspired to give it a
whirl. Skip to 7:15 to get to some cool roboto sounds. Domo arigato!
TI followed up the Speak & Spell with the Speak & Math and Speak & Read,
but they were nowhere near as fun. And of course, handheld electronic
learning devices (and plain old toys) are all over the place nowadays,
with superior graphics and vocals. They’re cool and all, but let’s not
forget that it all started with the good old Speak and Spell from way
back in the early 80s.